Opinion: K-12 Update

Lindalyn’s Journal

November 10, 2005

Ballots are in, and the 2005 election is now history. Voters, elected officials, and the non-voting public are left to sift through and interpret the results. While voter frustration was palpable, in the end, not much has changed.

Wake County voters elected two candidates to the school board, Lori Millberg and Eleanor Goettee. Both Millberg and Goettee favor busing students for economic diversity, defeating candidates who opposed the controversial practice.

So for now, the county’s quest for demographic and economic nirvana will progress unabated. The system continues to place the transportation burden on poor children, whose families do not have the financial means to opt out. However, for Wake County officials, there is a fly in the ointment: despite several years of busing and careful demographic manipulation, Wake County schools are, in fact, becoming less affluent. The percentage of poor students in Wake County has been steadily rising for the past four years, and is currently at an all-time high.

On to Mecklenburg County: results from school board races, will not significantly alter the playing field. Among the six district seats up for grabs, four yielded wins for incumbents. Voters instead channeled their frustration into defeating Mecklenburg County’s $427 million bond package, with 57 percent voting “no.” This is the first time in a decade that voters rejected a bond package for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

Interestingly, the “Vote Yes for Bonds” campaign raised over $300,000, much of it coming from donors like Bank of America, Wachovia, and Duke Energy. The loosely organized “Vote No” campaign, led by Citizens for Effective Government, spent much, much less − around $9,000 − and still came up with a win.

Clearly, citizens in Mecklenburg County recoiled at the prospect of funneling more funds into the hands of school board leaders. Yet, they essentially voted the same people back into office. What gives?

The unfortunate reality is that voters in both Mecklenburg and Wake Counties exert little real influence on the overall composition of the school board. In both counties, citizens cannot vote for a majority of the board, meaning neither county’s school board represents the majority view of the entire county. Only 3 at-large members of Charlotte’s 9-member school board are elected by the entire county; the other 6 members are district representatives elected by each district, meaning that each Mecklenburg County voter actually only votes for four of the nine members. Wake County’s school board is comprised of nine members elected from nine different districts − so each voter only elects one member of the board. It’s no wonder so many voters feel disenfranchised.

Is the political machine the engine driving American education? It would surely seem to be so. Many families cannot afford to opt out of this politically-controlled system, and are thus trapped in a system that fails to serve the interests of their children. Hopefully, there will soon come a day when money follows the child, not the system, and children’s needs trump politics. But stay tuned over the coming year: as Benjamin Disraeli, a British social reformer of the 19th century once said in the House of Commons, “Finality is not the language of politics.”