Is it a mystery? Or is the answer staring us in the face?
Everybody knows that Charlotte is North Carolina's largest city, by a pretty wide margin. Yet the county where Charlotte is located, Mecklenburg, is expected to be overtaken in population by Wake County within the next couple of years. What's going on?
Well, probably several things related to the economy, geography and transportation patterns. But there's also no doubt that a main reason for Wake's turbocharged growth over the past couple of decades has been the fine reputation of its public schools.
People who want or need to relocate find it easy these days to turn up a ton of information about places where they might cast their lot. Computers will be humming with searches as the curious scope out what would await them in Raleigh, Cary, Holly Springs or one of Wake's other towns, large and small.
A family with children will hone in on reports, data, news articles about the school system. There are Web sites that allow exhaustive comparisons to be made. There are rankings of the nation's best high schools. Throw it all in the pot and stir it around, and Wake County has emerged as a surefire winner.
That's not to say there aren't some disappointing stats, especially among students who have to carry the extra baggage of poverty. But for a large school system drawing students from both ends of the economic spectrum, Wake has done pretty darn well. Even where outcomes have fallen short, there's certainly no evidence that kids consigned to schools where most of the students were poor would have done any better.
Further, Wake's reputation has been bolstered by the fact that school quality has been generally strong throughout the county (a few schools struggling to emerge from a rural tradition in which academics tended to take a back seat merely are exceptions that illustrate the rule).
The Wake schools have a track record. Do well at a Wake County high school, and college admissions officers understand that your transcript means something. The economic growth that highly regarded schools have helped generate brings its own set of problems, but by and large they are good problems to have when they come with greater opportunities to work, shop and recreate.
Whether it has all simply been too good to be true turns out to be up to the Wake school board to decide. And the board last week seemingly set out to prove that the model so attractive to those thousands of new families - the same families that are pushing Wake ahead of Mecklenburg in population - actually was a dud.
Ever since the Raleigh and Wake County school systems were merged 34 years ago, the idea has been to operate the schools from a basis of parity. There would not be conspicuous differences in resources or opportunities.
The effect was to minimize neighborhood-by-neighborhood differences in the quality of schools. While the choice of where to live would be influenced by plenty of factors, avoiding the handicaps posed by a school sunk in mediocrity would not be part of the puzzle.
The school board, propelled by a conservative majority that came to power after last fall's elections, now is angling to restructure the system in a way that risks magnifying those quality differences among schools in different parts of the county.
This is to be done in the name of stability and with an eye toward those lagging academic performances by too many students from lower-income families. Stability, however, is a mirage for folks who live in the county's growth zones. And backing away from the policy that has tried to keep urban schools from becoming overwhelmed with poor kids has approximately zero chance of helping them raise their grades and test scores.
The plan is to assign students within attendance zones whose boundaries have yet to be fixed, but which hardly will be able to avoid reflecting local community character. Put simply, that will mean schools in wealthier areas with many built-in advantages and with mirror-image disadvantages in poorer areas. Parity? Kiss it goodbye.
The Charlotte schools have been going down the same road for the past few years - long enough for many schools to sort out by income and race. Maybe it's just coincidence, but there seems to have been a rush to the exits among white families, who on the whole tend to be better off financially. Adjacent Union County has been the state's fastest-growing since 2000 (and the 14th-fastest in the nation among counties with at least 10,000 residents). The Union schools last year were 69 percent white; Charlotte's were 34 percent white.
Where will the Wake rush occur? Will growth pressures become even more intense in the outer-ring suburbs? Will Johnston County become Union's twin? However that plays out, fracturing the school system into zones threatens to sap Wake County's single strongest unifying force, a force that says, "All for one and one for all." Many a child will pay the price, unless people who can't abide the thought of letting that happen make sure that it doesn't.
Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at email@example.com.