RALEIGH — Wake County school board politics are fun, aren’t they? The interesting characters, ego clashes, and name-calling make the 2010 midterm electionss seem like a snoozefest. Who needs Obama, Pelosi, and the Tea Party when we have Ron, John, Chris, Anne, Keith, Carolyn, Kevin, and the two Debs?
This might sound a little nerdy, but I think one of the most interesting discussions I have had on the topic in recent months was about ideology, not prom queens. Who are the conservatives on the board? Who are the liberals?
On the surface, answers present themselves pretty clearly. The pre-Goldman defection majority are the conservatives, led ostensibly by John Tedesco. The “minority” — Anne McLaurin, Keith Sutton, Kevin Hill, and Carolyn Morrison (I call them MSHM) — are the liberals because they support a pro-diversity busing policy. But I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.
To use the pure definition of the term, the minority is conservative because it wants to protect the status quo and slow the pace of change. Its members and supporters sometimes even use the language of paternalistic 19th century conservatives; speaking as they do of civic obligations and a holistic community — the British Tories used to call it “one nation conservatism.”
But this all seems a bit odd in the context of contemporary American politics. The bloc consisting of Chair Ron Margiotta, John Tedesco, Deborah Prickett, and Chris Malone (MTPM) looks markedly more conservative to us — even though, in the tradition of Newt Gingrich, who in 1995 became the first Republican Speaker of the House in 40 years, they might prefer to call themselves “radicals,” or agents of change.
Much of this has to do with the partisan affiliation of the group and its neighborhood schools philosophy. It’s not easy to stretch the issue of school assignment neatly along the conventional liberal-to-conservative spectrum we use to understand American politics, but the argument is essentially that neighborhood schools represent a kind of “natural order” for assignment and a laissez-faire attitude by policymakers, whereas the diversity policy is intrusive and involves the deployment of a significant amount of public resources.
Still, it is interesting that MTPM has moved away from the idea of neighborhood schools a little. The proposed zonal policy, in which families could not be guaranteed their neighborhood school but would choose between institutions in a particular area, certainly recognizes the important conservative value of choice. But its implementation requires government activism and the commitment of significant resources for transportation.
In fact, although Debra Goldman’s defection from the majority — a group I’ll call MTPM+G — protected the liberal status quo, an argument can be made that she took a principled stand in favor of a policy that is more conservative than the zonal version authored primarily by Tedesco. That policy, remember, initially was offered as a kind of olive branch to the pro-diversity crowd.
There is another issue on which MTPM (this time +G) are not particularly conservative. The grass-roots revolt that started in western Wake and helped propel Tedesco, Malone, Prickett, and Goldman to victory last year essentially began as a backlash against the county’s mandatory year-round schools policy. If year-round schools can be thought of ideologically, they are surely more conservative than those on the conventional calendar. They are more efficient and, on a per-student basis, do not consume as much taxpayer money.
You might ask: Does this all matter? To a certain extent the answer is “no.” As I have noted, school board politics are difficult to understand in liberal and conservative terms. They are much more parochial than the large issues that are discussed on newscasts or in speeches by the president and other national leaders. They are tribal rather than partisan and frequently about personalities more than policies.
But at another level this does matter. It’s a shame that neighborhood schools should splinter MTPM+G. All members of the group want a hands-off school assignment policy. There must be a way for them to get back together.
It’s a shame that year-round schools stoke controversy and division, too. Conservatives should be allowed to speak freely and independently on these issues and not allow their intramural squabbles to distract from the bigger issues of education reform.
These include merit pay for teachers, creating metrics to measure student progress and hold schools accountable for performance, and permitting families that feel their school has failed them to transfer elsewhere. Although many of these decisions would be made at the state level, a unified school board majority could make a good start on them.
Andy Taylor is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science in the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University.