News: CJ Exclusives

Local Group Presses for School Choice in North Carolina’s 2nd-Largest District

RALEIGH – Is Wake County’s student assignment plan working in the best interests of student achievement? Not according to the group Assignment By Choice. Organized in the fall of 2002, the group was formed with the support of elected officials in Cary, Garner, and Apex. The group is trying to put pressure on the Wake County school system — the second-largest in the state — to end forced busing and replace it with parental choice with the public schools.

More than 2,600 students were affected by the county’s reassignment plan for 2003-04. It seems that almost everyone except the school board is unhappy with some aspect of the moves.

Many of the reassignment plans are intended to restructure the socioeconomic makeup of each school according to current Wake County policy. Annual growth in the number of school-age children in Wake County adds another layer to the issue, since the county is projecting increases in the student population of about 3,500 per year. This puts pressure on the system to provide more seats and redistribute pupils.

Wake school board member Jeffrey York was quoted by The News & Observer of Raleigh as saying, “…any examination of the issues has to be in the context of educating every student in Wake County to their highest capability.”

Nodes determine student status

The current Wake County school assignment map is divided into a complex system of “nodes, ”each of which is associated with a given socioeconomic status. Interestingly, the node designation doesn’t change if higher- or lower-income families move in, so all children living in a given node have the identical status, regardless of actual family income.

Constant growth and socioeconomic goals require the county to juggle students annually among schools. This means that children from one node are bused to get the mix “right” in another node. As a result, the Wake County school assignment map ends up looking like a Jackson Pollock painting — there are spatters of color all over the county that indicate where pockets of children, bused to balance school numbers in another part of the county, are living. Elementary schools have the largest number of individual nodes in the county, totaling more than 600. Not surprisingly, the most contentious school reassignment plans are concentrated in primary grades.

The U.S. Department of Education contends that schools with up to 50 percent of their students from low-income families have no negative effect on schoolwide academic performance. Wake County has set a 40 percent free/reduced-price-lunch benchmark for its student mix. That translates into a continual reshuffling as population and housing developments grow and more school facilities are required.

Opposing factions

Partly because students from six elementary schools were barred from requesting magnet-school assignments last year, and partly because the current reassignment is a fraction of the anticipated 10,000-student reassignment for 2004-05, parent and civic groups are taking sides and forming strategies.

Cynthia Matson, who has coordinated the Assignment By Choice group, notes that “the fact that they shut people out of magnet schools has helped turn parents into activists.”

The group claims to represent the interests of all income groups in their efforts. They have been accused of having segregationist motives, however, by members of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association. RWCA, along with other predominantly black community organizations, has backed the school board’s reassignment plan in the interests of avoiding school resegregation in Wake County.

Yet another group, the Wake Education Partnership, is joining the discussion. The Partnership was formed in 1983 to include parents, teachers, and business people in efforts to determine priorities for the schools, and to help find the resources to carry them out. A spring 2001 Partnership education summit, hosting 500 community members, voted school-funding issues and addressing the achievement gap as the top two priorities. The third most urgent agenda item was student assignment. In the fall of 2002, the Wake Education Partnership reported a 20-point drop in survey responses that said maintaining diverse schools should be a priority. The previous survey was conducted in 2000.

School leaders have formed a response committee, called the Healthy Schools Task Force, to address community questions about Wake County’s plans. No Assignment By Choice members were chosen for the group, which has led them to accuse the county of creating a task force purely to legitimize the reassignments. School-reform advocates also have a task force of their own.

With so many voices wanting to be heard, it isn’t clear how much successful communication exists among the various factions.

Diversity vs. quality?

Assignment By Choice proponents are sensitive to the charge that segregation could recur in Wake County, if parents are allowed free choice of their children’s schools. The Wake County public schools are equally convinced that diversity must be imposed on county residents, specifically in the school arena. Both sides are claiming the high ground, and both have some plausible arguments in their favor.

Pop sociology, inspired by books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, refer to an epidemic-like cascade of events touched off by the buildup to a critical mass, the idea of a “tipping point.” If there is an over-40 percent tipping point for Wake schools, then free/reduced lunch numbers above that threshold should cause student performance to cascade downward. Preventing that cascade effect has become an engine for Wake County’s diversity policy.

But there are tradeoffs that are caused by attempts to fine-tune the school culture. Assignment By Choice points out that since 1996, the percentage of school-aged Wake residents attending the county’s public schools has dropped from 90 to 83 percent. ABC leadership anticipates that the trend will continue downward, in a flight from county schools. For example, only 75 percent of Cary schoolchildren attend Wake public schools.

Because busing over long distances and for longer time periods drives up transportation costs, Wake spent $197 more per pupil than the state average on transportation in 1999-2000, or about $10 million. That figure represents the approximate construction cost of an additional elementary school, according to county reports.

ABC defines as its goal “allowing school choice within geographically-close contiguous nodes,” said Amanda Mixon, governmental relations representative. More magnet programs, Mixon said, will make less wealthy neighborhoods desirable school sites. Voluntary diversity will be the result.

Turning schools around

The Poverty and Race Research Action Council opens its report Add It Up: Using Research to Improve Education for Low-Income and Minority Students by stating that “…placing students from many cultures and ethnicities into the same classroom represents an incomplete solution.” Instead, the report asks, “What is it we want our students to know and be able to do? Equally important: Is the answer to be the same for all children?”

Families forcibly distanced from their schools participate less in school events. Children are separated from their daytime cohorts after school hours. For low-income families, this can mean more social isolation, rather than less. “The literature on ‘turn-around’ schools universally endorses a mission for each school, one designed and implemented by everyone connected with the school,” the PRRAC report reads. Student achievement can flounder if the school experience is disjointed and lacks a unified vision, as when students are shifted from school to school. ABC endorses magnet programs, particularly in schools in low-income areas, to attract diverse populations.

Arlington, McIver, and Lillington Elementary schools, each with more than 60 percent of students classified as “needy,” have all been highlighted by the NC Education Alliance and Carolina Journal for having turned their schools around.

Every school emphasized the tremendous importance of the community, parents, a cohesive staff, and a principal with strong leadership. None had socioeconomic balance. Evidence suggests that a focus on results, not recipe, can work well for students, even in unfavorable economic circumstances.

Palasek is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.