"There are no bad schools in Raleigh" -- and no debate about it last night. | Citizen
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Friday, May 22, 2009

"There are no bad schools in Raleigh" -- and no debate about it last night.

Posted by on Fri, May 22, 2009 at 4:13 PM

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I'm not sure why I expected the other side to come last night to challenge Syracuse University's Gerald Grant, whose new book posits that urban schools are a disaster in America with few very exceptions ... and posits that the one great exception, the "hope" in his title, is the Raleigh/Wake County school system. (Subtitle: "Why there are no bad schools in Raleigh.")

Anyway, it didn't happen. Speaking at Quail Ridge Books & Music, Grant asked the 100 folks in attendance how many were teachers? (Some.) How many principals? (Some.) How many other school administrators? (Superintendent Del Burns' hand went up.) Several school board members and former members were also on hand along with County Commissioner Stan Norwalk.

And how many here, Grant asked finally, want to vote the school board out and change its policies, the policies he so strongly endorses?

No hands went up.

"They're probably too busy blogging," Grant quipped.

Ah, well. They're definitely out there. I've made it to one meeting so far of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, the banner under which some of them are gathered, and there are more than a handful of folks (but fewer than you might imagine) who utterly and completely reject the policies that Grant likes so much. They might concede his point that there are no bad schools in Raleigh. But I believe they'd argue -- more reporting needed here -- that it comes at a price to "their" schools in Apex, Holly Springs, Cary, Garner and the other towns in the county where most of them live.

For now, though, they're staying in their corner,  getting organized to answer the bell when the filing date comes for the Wake school board elections this fall.

In the interim, what I'll call the pro-diversity side -- the incumbent side -- lapped up what Grant had to say, which could be boiled down to this: "Both the leadership and the teacher talent in this system is just outstanding." Grant talked about why in the Indy this week: You can read either the excerpted or the full transcript of it here. He elaborated on two key points last night, though, that I think bear some more scrutiny:

++ The critics who are using Charlotte's policies as a cudgel against Wake's just don't get it about Charlotte;

++ Far from costing us money (for "busing"), Wake's diversity policies save taxpayers' money compared to Charlotte and every other urban school system in the country. In fact, he said, we've been getting great results "on the cheap." 

More on these two points below.

First, the Charlotte issue.

Ex-school board member Susan Parry raised it, asking Grant what he thought of the critics' argument that Charlotte's results on tests of student achievement aren't all that much different than Wake's. (Though as Richard Kahlenberg noted, Charlotte's dropout rate is significantly higher, meaning their test results are for a smaller pool of survivors.) And Charlotte, in this decade, has dropped its Wake-style diversity policy in favor of "neighborhood schools," which is what the critics here espouse.

Grant's answer: Charlotte may look different when viewed from Raleigh. But viewed from a national perspective, Charlotte and Raleigh both are great examples of why and how diversity works -- great "outliers," he said -- in sharp contrast to virtually every urban system in the North, Midwest and West where diversity was never tried. Charlotte's relatively good test results reflect the benefits of two decades worth of the right policies, which brought prosperity to the city as they did in Raleigh.

Those benefits don't disappear overnight, he said. But they do fade with time, as UNC-Charlotte's Roslyn Mickelson's research has shown. Since going to neighborhood schools, Charlotte's teacher turnover rates are up, it's been forced to mothball some schools in high-poverty neighborhoods as parents flee (or the kids drop out), and even so, "bad schools" have developed there. "The road [Charlotte's" going down now, I think, is the wrong road," he said.

Rather than get caught up in Charlotte vs. Raleigh, though, consider Charlotte and Raleigh -- both unified, countywide systems that achieved racial and socioeconomic balance in all of their schools after 1980 -- against a system like his own in Syracuse, Grant said. There, the city of Syracuse has a school district that is 70 percent black and predominantly poor; it's surrounded by 21 suburban school districts, all in the same county as Syracuse. Test results in the suburban districts are good -- like Wake's. But the results in the city district are terrible. And because of they are, very few people with money want to live in Syracuse. 

But Syracuse, Grant emphasized, is typical of the way school systems are organized outside of the South, in large part because of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions which treated the South and the rest of the county very differently when it came to integrating their schools.

In the first decision, in 1971, the Court upheld a judge's order that Charlotte-Mecklenburg desegregate its schools using busing -- but because the decision was based on the South's historic segregation, it applied only in the South. (And Charlotte and Raleigh were two of a handful of southern cities that actually followed the decision; many others, like Durham, retained separate city and county systems for years or else created sub-districts within the system.)

But in 1974, the Court overturned an order that Detroit's schools be integrated with the schools in the surrounding suburban districts of Wayne County, Michigan. No busing needed there, the Court said, even though Detroit's schools verged on all-black because of white flight to the 34 other districts in the same county. This decision, handed down by a very different court than four years earlier because of President Richard Nixon's anti-busing appointees, applied everywhere except the South.

For comparison's sake, imagine that instead of merging in 1976, the Raleigh and Wake school systems had continued to be separate. And not only that, but Raleigh was one school district and every other town in Wake County had a separate school district of its own, like Wayne County. Would Raleigh today be affluent? Or would the affluent people of Raleigh have long since moved to Cary, Apex and the rest of the suburbs, leaving a poor inner-city school system behind? And actually, for a more apt comparison with the North (which has no annexation laws), imagine that what is now Cary developed instead into several separate, much smaller towns, some more affluent than the others and each with its own school district.

Where would the affluent folks of Raleigh be living in that case, do you suppose? 

Sure, Charlotte's policies and Raleigh's are diverging now, as Grant said. But there's a still an enormous gap between Charlotte and Syracuse, or Charlotte and Detroit -- a gap, however, that will disappear if Charlotte allows a wall to go up between the schools in its low-income neighborhoods and the rest of its system. 


On the money issue, Grant argued strenuously against the fallacy, as he termed it,  that once having erected a wall between your high-performing suburban schools and the other schools in low-income neighborhoods, a school system can redress the problems in the latter by "throwing money over the wall." Per student spending in the Syracuse city district, he said, is about $17,000 a year -- far more than Raleigh spends -- but it doesn't matter.

What does matter is the culture within a school, and the "social capital" in it -- meaning the networks that the kids and their parents (and their teachers) bring and connect to it. Kids in a high-poverty neighborhood school don't anybody with professional connections, nor do their parents (and the teachers who do quickly figure out how to teach somewhere else); they're lucky if they know anybody who's graduated from college. No amount of money can make up for that, Grant said.

Charlotte, largely because of well-intentioned efforts to raise up the schools in its "bad" neighborhoods, already spends some $500 per student more than Wake (though it, too, spends far less than Syracuse). Wake, by avoiding bad schools in the first place, is "doing it on the cheap," Grant said. But flying into RDU, he couldn't help but notice that "a lot of the schools look like trailerville." Watch out, he warned us, because your growth is running off and hiding from the money you're saving by not building enough schools to keep up with it. "This great engine of success," the schools, Grant said, "could soon go off the rails."


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