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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 02/17/2011

Chamber of Commerce vs. Tea Party over Wake County schools

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research organization, writes about education, equal opportunity and civil rights.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg
Wake County, North Carolina, which includes the city of Raleigh and the surrounding suburbs, has made headlines in recent months as a new Tea Party-backed school board majority has sought to dismantle the district’s longstanding and nationally acclaimed school integration plan.
The policy had the goal of limiting the proportion of low-income students in any given school to 40 percent and was based on decades of research finding that concentrations of school poverty are bad for education.

As Stephanie McCrummen noted in a front page story in The Washington Post last month, one tea party school board member argued that a new plan that would allow much higher concentrations of poverty could actually improve the prospects of low-income kids.

“If we had a school that was, like, 80 percent high-poverty, the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful," said board member John Tedesco. "Right now, we have diluted the problem, so we can ignore it."

This approach flies in the face of mountains of research finding that one of the best things you can do for a low-income student is give her a chance to go to a middle-class school, where peers expect to go on to college and encourage achievement, parents are in a position to be actively involved in school affairs, and excellent teachers educate students to high expectations.

A recent Center for American Progress study found that Wake County’s integrated system produced greater bang for the educational buck than nearby Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s system, which has re-segregated in recent years.

The new school board’s proposal to re-segregate the public schools in Wake County was criticized by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who noted that the Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating. Television comedian Stephen Colbert also got into the act, parodying a conservative proponent asking, “What’s the use of living in a gated community if my kids go to school and get poor all over them?”

The new school board majority has become something of an embarrassment to Wake County residents. In addition to the civil rights investigation, the system’s accreditation is being questioned because of board member squabbling.

A recent poll of local residents found that the school board is viewed unfavorably by 51% of residents, compared to 29% who view the board favorably. Meanwhile 94.5% of parents surveyed in Wake County said they were satisfied with where their children currently attend school.

Civil rights groups, education researchers, teachers, parents and advocates of magnet schools have been protesting for months. But now the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Raleigh, hardly a radical organization, has jumped into the fray. On Friday, the Chamber, along with an education foundation, the Wake Education Partnership, released a plan that would use public school choice to maintain diverse schools.

The proposal, devised by consultant Michael Alves, seeks to address some logistical and political problems with the old diversity plan, while at the same time maintaining integrated schools.

The main problem with the old plan was that it did not accommodate Wake County’s extraordinary growth in student population. As the district, the 18th largest in the nation, grew by leaps and bounds, students were constantly reassigned to fill new schools. Some were even assigned mandatorily to schools with a year-round calendar, sparking a political firestorm. Some blamed the constant shuffling of students on the diversity goal, but in fact diversity considerations influenced only a very small fraction of student assignments.

The Chamber’s plan calls for a system of “controlled choice,” which fills seats in all schools, including new ones, not through mandatory assignment but through public school choice. The district, which ranges over 864 square miles, is subdivided into three manageable areas within which most school choices will be made. Each of the areas contains a portion of the city of Raleigh and outlying areas and the three zones are roughly comparable in demographic makeup.

Under the proposal, parents would not automatically be assigned to a school and instead would be asked to make 5 choices, ranking their preferences. In other controlled choice plans that Alves has designed, 90% of parents get one of their first couple of choices. Under the new plan, choices would be honored with an eye to ensuring that schools are balanced not by race or socioeconomic status but by student achievement level.

Because students who are applying for Kindergarten haven’t yet been tested for achievement, the plan looks at several factors that make students “at risk” for low achievement: having no pre-school experience, having parents with low levels of education or low income, being raised in a single parent household, having limited English proficiency, or being diagnosed with a learning disability.

Within the parameters of a system that seeks a balance of at-risk and non-at risk students, priorities are provided to students who have siblings in a school and live nearby, both sensible accommodations. Alves said that in other controlled choice plans, roughly half of parents choose the school closest to them and half choose a school further that offers a particularly attractive theme or pedagogical approach. In this way, the system can reconcile both choice and diversity.

The latest developments in Wake County are significant for two reasons.

First, they underline an important split in the conservative education community – between Tea Party enthusiasts who are willing to re-segregate public schools and the business community, which understands the value of school integration.

Business leaders realize that concentrations of poverty and at-risk children are bad for education. They also want employees who will be able to get along with people of different backgrounds.

Finally, they are looking for a way to distance themselves from Tea Party activists who have made Raleigh an object of national ridicule. Being the subject of civil rights investigations and accreditation checks and the butt of jokes by late-night comedians hurts in the effort to recruit new businesses and employees to the area. A coalition of business leaders, allied with civil rights activists and teachers, could breathe new life into the push for fair and integrated schools.

Second, the proposed plan sketches a politically palatable model for preserving diversity in our schools in coming years. People want choice, they want stability and they want to avoid re-segregation of schools. The Chamber has shown the way forward on how to achieve all of these objectives at once.

The Chamber’s plan has received a respectful hearing from a variety of factions on the school board and is being studied by the superintendent’s office. The plan is a long way from being adopted, but it presents a credible third way between the constant reassignment of students under the old system and the tea party’s proposed re-segregation of Raleigh’s schools.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 17, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Equity, Guest Bloggers, Poverty  | Tags:  center for american progress, chamber of commerce, chamber of commerce school plan, charlotte-mecklenburg's schools, desegregation plans, high-poverty schools, raleigh schools, resegregation in schools, tea party, tea party in raleigh, wake county schools  
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This is an interesting piece by Richard Kahlenberg on the role of the Chamber of Commerce in the Wake County, NC resegregation issue.

On the one hand, I suppose it's a good thing that the Chamber is publicly opposing the Tea Party (and its narrow ideology). And maybe it's a good thing that the Chamber is brokering a compromise. But I wonder....

Is the Chamber's plan really anything that much different from what existed previously, except for some rather important semantics changes?

As the Post reported earlier on the Wake County controversy:

"The district tried to strike this balance through student assignments and choice, establishing magnet programs in poor areas to draw middle-class kids. Although most students here ride buses to school, officials said fewer than 10 percent are bused to a school to maintain diversity, and most bus rides are less than five miles."

So, the district already used choice, assignment, and the concept of neighborhood schools to implement its plan for socioeconomic diversity. The Chamber plan substitutes "student achievement level," as a proxy for socioeconomics, but they're just different words for the same thing.

Moreover, a high percentage of parents are going to select a school that is nearer to their homes (and that they've had previous experiences with), so it isn't going to be that difficult to place "90% of parents" with one of the top several choices.

The issue of semantics is not an idle one. There are severe budget pressures in North Carolina was well as in Wake County. The state faces a $2.5 billion budgetary
shortfall. Wake County faces the prospect of adding 50,000 students in the next decade and building 32 schools at a cost of $1 billion to educate them.

Meanwhile, the governor has proposed a nearly 30% corporate tax rate cut, giving the state "the third-lowest corporate tax rate in the nation." The state Chamber of Commerce supports the cut, even though it compounds the budget shortfall and funding for the state college system (which the Chamber claims to support).

It's all about job creation, says the Chamber, which will create more revenue (apparently the Chamber has yet to learn that supply-side policies don't work). But if that's truly the case, then why is Texas having such a hard time right now?

Already in the Raleigh area there's talk of "more charter schools, and tax credits, and vouchers for private schools." Is the Chamber opposed to such policies?

After all, the Chamber in North Carolina opposes unions, opposes providing sick leave for employees, and opposed the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2009. Its interest in education is almost entirely economic.

It may be, as Kahlenberg says, the Chamber plan is a "way forward."

And it may also be that the Chamber plan represents "the way forward" to an outright effort to privatize public education.

Time will tell.

Posted by: mcrockett1 | February 17, 2011 10:03 AM | Report abuse

It should be mentioned that Art Pope (Supporter of lifting limit on Charter Schools) and Bob Luddy (Owner of 3 private schools in Wake Co) were the largest contributors in the Oct2009 election. Both have a very large vested interest in seeing the public school system fail. Also Ron Margiotta served on the Board of Trustees at the Thales Academy, a Luddy owned private school.

Posted by: TerryWatts1000 | February 17, 2011 10:52 AM | Report abuse

It was because the Wake County Tea Party had lost its momentum, was bogged down in public relations battles, and had become the butt of jokes, that the Chamber rode to the rescue with the same plan with a few cosmetic changes.

There is and never will be a divergence of interest between Big Business and their working-class shock troops of the Tea Party. You see that's how fascism works Val.

Posted by: natturner | February 18, 2011 12:57 AM | Report abuse

Wake County is an interesting melting pot with a diversity program that sounds good from afar. The magnet schools in impoverished areas are great as they receive a large percentage of funding. They are like mini public sponsored private schools. Unfortunately the gap between the 60% bussed in and the local 40% continues to grow. As this happens, those bused to other county schools are also not excelling. Why one asks, because those schools are the bill payers for magnet schools and with less resourcing both the average and less than average income children suffer. For instance, one down town magnet elementary school provides 6 foreign languages where my 3 choice schools offer none. Do not even look at the fact that we do not warrant full time PE or arts teachers and do not even have part time science, technology, or foreign language teachers. The current diversity policies generate a lottery system where the lucky get great schools and the remainder get table scraps. The good news is that our policies are reinvigorating down town and generating more suburban poor areas – push the problem out of the city. Yes, as now the base population is at 50% and the lottery choice makes up the remaining 50%, those that cannot win simply relocate to the magnet nodes. This drives up home prices considerably to the point where the less fortunate must relocate to the wonderful suburb schools. The diversity policies are great, but make them mandatory and provide equal funding to all school programs. Currently the diversity policy discriminates against those suburban and city students who are not luck enough to get into a magnet school and must attend or ride busses to suburban schools. We have economic diversity and a great lottery system. If you win you are rich, if you do not……..keep playing.
Yes, those who are in magnet schools with call this desegregation or a whole host of other terms and protest every chance they get to protect their pot of gold. What parent would not? All parents want is equal opportunity which should not require a lottery system.

Posted by: ncdagda | February 18, 2011 10:23 PM | Report abuse

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