"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wake County Votes to Restore School Diversity Plan


CARY - In a partisan battle that raged into the early hours of Wednesday morning, members of the Wake County school board’s Democratic majority passed a motion calling for a return to a diversity-based student assignment plan for the 2013-14 school year.The vote, which came shortly before 1 a.m., directs staff to come up with a revised student assignment plan that goes back to tying each address to a specific school. The motion says that the new plan should promote student achievement, proximity and stability, including saying targets should be set for academics and socioeconomics at schools.

“We’re going to have a plan going forward that’s good for Wake County,” said school board member Jim Martin, one of three new Democratic members who was elected last fall to flip the majority on the board

The 5-4 party line vote came after Republicans threw up repeated objections to dropping the new choice-based plan after just one year.

“The problem with this is that it’s putting us in a lot of political turmoil,” said Republican member Chris Malone. “You are going to have parents that are absolutely furious. They are positive that we are going back to 2008.”

Board Vice Chairman Keith Sutton, who introduced the measure, made revisions to meet school board attorney Ann Majestic’s specifications about the degree of change it could direct.
“No plan has been designed at this time,” Sutton said. “We have much work to do. We are Wake County. We can do this.”

The directive tells staff to reestablish the connection of student addresses to specific schools.
The long, contentious meeting saw Republican members voicing strenuous, lengthy objections to asking the school administration to discard the new choice-based plan after only one year.
The directive called for Superintendent Tony Tata and staff to modify the choice plan to an address-based plan beginning in 2013. In addition, the directive calls for a three-year plan that will take diversity into consideration by setting achievement and socioeconomic targets. The plan should also take proximity and stability into consideration, as does the plan currently in effect, the directive says.
Republican board members unsuccessfully asked for a 60-day delay in the Democratic motion.

Republican board member Debra Goldman argued that the Democrats should first change the student assignment policy before returning to a base school plan.

"This is directly flying in the face of an existing policy," Goldman said. "This is a slap in the face of every parent in wake county planning on a school."

It took a series of votes and disagreements even to keep the directive on the board agenda, as Republican members complained they had little information about it and that it should have gone through the board’s policy committee first. Discussion of the item didn’t begin until just before 11 p.m.
The earlier vote on placing the item on the agenda showed that the lines have been clearly drawn: Democrats want an assignment plan that includes diversity and schools that go along with addresses. And the GOP stands firmly against abandoning the choice plan after its first year.

“We haven’t even implemented the new plan yet,” said Republican board member Chris Malone.
Board member John Tedesco suggested that many other actions should be taken before the development of a revised assignment plan.

“It means we’re going to draw circles around some high-poverty neighborhoods,” Tedesco said. “We need to table this ... before we automatically scrap the choice model.”

‘We have to do it now’
Hill, who was re-elected chairman on Tuesday, said they needed to act now to be able to have it in place for the 2013-14 school year.

“The directive is to get the discussion on the table,” Hill said. “We’ve been told that if we’re going to have to have changes, we have to do it now.”

But some speakers told the board, which has had a Democratic majority since November, that changing assignment plans again would bring turmoil to the community.

“I want to say that this would be a huge mistake to change this plan or call for the development of a new plan,” North Raleigh resident and former school board candidate Jennifer Mansfield said. “If you really wanted to pull the plug on this thing, you should have done it the first thing in December. To do this now is just playing with people.”

Raleigh resident Louis Wooten said he applauded the board’s decision to re-examine the assignment plan. Making changes will not be politically popular, Wooten said, but could prevent some unwanted consequences.

“I think (the student assignment plan) will over time create high concentrations of children for whom education is their only ticket out,” he said.

Until the election of a Republican-based board in 2009, Wake had pursued a policy of keeping schools balanced on the basis of students’ economic background. The GOP-led board developed a choice-based system that put a premium on proximity and stability. When the board majority switched to Democratic in 2011, members continued along the choice-based plan established by the GOP, saying there was too little time to make significant changes for the 2012-13 school year.

For and against choice plan
Under the choice plan, families rank their preferences from a list of available schools, instead of being assigned to a specific school based on where they live. Supporters of the choice plan said it would end the fears of reassignments, where thousands of students were moved between schools each year in the past, by letting families know ahead of time which schools their children will attend through high school.

Critics of the choice plan included some familiar constituencies at board meetings: real estate interests who say the lack of an address-based system hurts sales; inside the Raleigh Beltline residents who weren’t able to get a nearby school assignment; and newcomers to the Wake public schools, who are put at the bottom of the choice process.

“If I take a new ship to sea, I am going to go to sea a number of times. It’s called a shakedown cruise,” said Peter Rumsey, a downtown real-estate agent. “You have an opportunity, working with both sides of the room, to set an example for the rest of the country.”

Those who favored keeping the brand-new choice plan said it has its faults, but should be given a chance. Some of the more than two dozen speakers grew emotional as they talked of the effects of a series of changed policies on families and children.

“Making a major change now dishonors and disrespects every citizen in Wake County who has invested themselves in this plan,” North Raleigh parent Rhonda Curtright said in support of the choice plan.

Republican board member John Tedesco joined a party-line vote early in the meeting against taking up the directive, while objecting to what he said was its hasty introduction.

However, he conceded implicitly that the action resembled the GOP-led board’s wholesale changes in the assignment policy when they took office in 2009.

“I would caution you as my fellow colleagues not to follow the same path,” Tedesco said.
“I’ll put it out there – learn from my own mistakes.”

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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