Wake schools: It's not over; the battle is just beginning | Citizen
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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wake schools: It's not over; the battle is just beginning

Posted by on Wed, Mar 24, 2010 at 4:50 PM

click to enlarge Photo by Art Howard
  • Photo by Art Howard

The screaming headline ("Tumultuous session ends diversity policy") in the N&O suggests otherwise, but the fact remains that what the Wake school board majority did yesterday does not end diversity. Rather, it begins a process in which the board, unless it changes course (or is itself changed in the 2011 elections) will try to do away with Wake's diversity goals over the next nine to 15 months.

That's what it says in the resolution that the Board, by a 5-4 vote, adopted.

(On the other hand, the N&O stories and photos, and Art Howard's photo (above), capture the police-state quality of yesterday's meeting very well. The Majority Five is trying hard to squelch public debate; but the harder they try, the more people are showing up to push back against them.)

Thus far, however, the Majority Five has not amended the Student Assignment Policy (Policy 6200) which includes diverse student populations in every school as one of its goals.

The point is, the battle isn't over. In fact, it's just beginning.

At the Great Schools in Wake forum on Saturday, diversity supporter Richard Kahlenburg (senior fellow at the Century Foundation) suggested that Wake County could be divided into a small number of soft assignment zones and still retain diversity as a goal for all of them. Kahlenberg, when I quizzed him on that idea, didn't want to be pinned down to a specific number of zones, nor did he profess to know the county well enough to say where, exactly, the lines should be drawn.

Still -- there are zones, and then there are zones.

A plan could be developed, as Kahlenberg says, to divide Wake into two or three or perhaps four zones while also respecting the need for some rough balance among them (i.e., "diversity") on the numbers of low-income and low-performing students in each zone. Indeed, the current assignment plan, while it lacks "zone" lines, isn't far from doing just that.

On the other hand, if John Tedesco has his way, Wake would be split up into about 20 zones, one for each high school, without any regard for diversity. The more zones, the smaller each one will be, and the greater the likelihood that several -- in Southeast Raleigh and eastern Wake -- will contain only high-poverty neighborhoods.

And of course, once the "have" and "have-not" zones are identified (by realtors, and then by home buyers -- and sellers), folks with money will desert the have-not zones and they will become even higher-poverty ... and eventually, they'll be all-poverty. That's how it works everywhere in America where hard-zone lines are used.

It's been my theory from the moment I heard that the Majority Five wanted Raleigh attorney Tom Farr as their "special counsel" that Farr would have two jobs:

1) Redraw the lines for the nine school board districts (using the 2010 census data) in time for the 2011 elections.

2) Draw the lines for the school assignment zones.

Farr is an employment lawyer, but his sideline specialty is in legislative apportionment, Republican-style. He's the man with a computer, the census software, voter-registration software, and making the lines come out so they maximize the number of districts the Republicans can win and minimize the number the Democrats can win. (This usually involves "packing" African-American voters into as few districts as possible.)

I'm not saying the Democrats don't do the same thing. They do, if they control the redistricting process. But in the case of the school board elections, the school board itself -- the Majority Five, in other words -- controls it UNLESS ...

... UNLESS the General Assembly, in 2011, should decide that the composition of the school board needs a makeover.

If the General Assembly were to determine, e.g., that the board ought to have more districts -- 11, say, instead of the current nine -- or should have some districts elected at-large, then the General Assembly itself would do the redistricting job.

Something to think about.

In the meantime, though, Farr's skills may be used (I asked him the question; he declined to answer) on the crafting of community assignment zones per Tedesco's and the Majority's Five's instructions. But that process must be done in public, presumably by Tedesco's student assignment committee, and will be subjected to intense scrutiny and debate.

It's in that sense that the process, then, is just starting. It is so not over.

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