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Friday, October 14, 2011

(UPDATED) School choice and the Hill-Losurdo runoff: Two questions

Posted by on Fri, Oct 14, 2011 at 8:46 AM

[UPDATE, 10/14: After the hearing last night, I spoke with Kevin Hill and Keith Sutton briefly. I asked Keith how he plans to vote on Tuesday, assuming there is a vote. "I'm deliberating," he said. Same question to Kevin. "I have my doubts," he said. I told him I'd written this piece, which is about how it would be smart politics for him to vote yes. "Because ..." I started to say, but Kevin jumped right in to remind me that he doesn't make decisions based on politics.

That said, Kevin underscored that he's not in favor of going back to a nodes-based assignment system. "Yes," he said, echoing the idea of a yes vote, "this is the plan we're going to work with. But I want to take care of the edges up front."

Most of the speakers last night urged the lameduck school board to slow down, postpone the vote on Tata's plan and give the newly elected school board members a chance to consider it before it's set in stone. One idea: Do a test drive of the actual plan when it's finished, rather than rely on the test drive done earlier of a hypothetical plan that has since changed quite a bit — and will continue to change as it moves forward.

The three new members-elect — Jim Martin, Susan Evans and Christine Kushner — are also asking that the Tuesday vote be put off. Martin, a chemistry professor at State, said he's reviewing grant proposals from graduate students now. If their proposals were as lacking in detail as the Tata plan currently is, Martin said, he wouldn't be able to approve them.

That's certainly true. The Tata plan is, at present, a framework, or as I said the other day, like a chair that needs four legs but so far has just three — and the third one is shaky.

That's not to say, however, that the new board, when it takes over, can't glue in the third leg and add the fourth — the missing student achievement leg.

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce and Wake Ed Partnership amped up the pressure to move ahead with a column in the N&O today. And Ron Margiotta, lameduck chair though he is, repeated last night that the Tuesday vote will go ahead just as if the voters hadn't ousted him on Tuesday.]

***

What follows is the original post from 10/13:

Question 1: Should Kevin Hill vote yes or no on the Tata school choice plan?

(Answer: Vote yes — but I'm not sure Hill will listen to this sound advice :)

From over here on the pro-Kevin Hill side of the District 3 runoff, I can report that Hill's supporters are split down the middle on the question of whether he should vote yes or no when Tony Tata's controlled-choice student assignment plan comes to the lameduck school board next Tuesday.

In fact, the yes-or-no question presents itself first for Hill later this afternoon when the school board meets for a public hearing on Tata's plan at Broughton High School. The hearing starts at 5 p.m.

Kevin Hill
  • Kevin Hill
No doubt, the newly elected school board members — who won't be seated until the beginning of December — would like to have the vote on Tata's plan postponed until they're in office. Jim Martin, a Democrat who won the District 5 seat Tuesday, is quoted as saying so in the N&O today. I recall that Donna Williams, the losing Republican candidate in District 6, said the same during the campaign — that is, if elected, she wanted a chance to influence the plan before it took effect.

The reality is, however, that the lameduck, Ron Margiotta-led board intends to vote on the plan next Tuesday. And with Debra Goldman having signaled her assent at the last board meeting, there are five Republican votes to pass it regardless what Hill does.

In fact, there may be six or seven votes for it, with Keith Sutton, who was re-elected Tuesday in District 4, and lameduck District 6 member Carolyn Morrison each a likely yes vote on the Democrats' side, I'd say.

***

Here's the political backdrop. Board Vice Chair John Tedesco, who is poised to take the gavel from Margiotta should Hill lose, has begun to frame the Hill-Heather Losurdo runoff as a referendum on Tata himself as well as on the Tata plan. As I said in the Indy today, Tedesco's got a whole "SAVE Superintendent Tata and our Schools" thing going. The only thing it lacks is veracity.

Tedesco would like nothing more than for Hill to vote against Tata's plan when it comes up Tuesday. This would give his "SAVE Tata" campaign what might termed colorable credibility, even though there's not a shred of truth to the idea that a Democratic school board majority would be gunning for Tata's removal.

If Hill votes yes on Tata's plan, where does that leave Tedesco?

***

Notwithstanding the above, though, if we've learned anything about Kevin Hill in this campaign, it's that he prides himself on making decisions based on his judgment as an educator, not on political grounds.

The question for Hill, then, is whether he believes a controlled-choice plan of the type Tata's presented is the best way forward for Wake County. If he does, he should vote yes. If he doesn't, if he thinks the current approach of base assignments by nodes is better — or some other idea not heard about yet is better — then he should vote no.

Again, the reality is that Tata's choice model will be approved Tuesday, and the important question is whether it will be put into practice — and fleshed out in its details — by a Democratic board that may well be under Hill's chairmanship or by a Republican board under Tedesco's.

There are, as the Hill supporters who think he should vote no point out, many, MANY unanswered questions about the Tata plan. Unanswered or perhaps unanswerable until it's put into practice.

One huge question is how a new high school in remote Rolesville can possibly be filled unless students are assigned to it — or, in the case of a controlled-choice plan — put in it by default when their other, higher and more proximate HS choices are full.

With feeder patterns guaranteed (as is the case with the Tata plan as it stands) that if you go to "X" elementary school, you then are guaranteed to go to "Y" middle school and "Z" high school, and everybody's "grandfathered" and new schools are filled with volunteers only, guess what? There simply won't be enough volunteers to fill a brand new high school that far off the beaten track.

Another huge question about Tata's plan involves student achievement and avoiding high-poverty schools, which Tata wants to do but the Margiotta-led board wouldn't give him the tools to do it. A Tedesco-led board won't either, especially if Heather Losurdo has anything to say about it — which she will if Hill hands her the runoff.

If Hill thinks controlled-choice can work under the watchful guidance of a progressive-minded school board, then he should vote yes while making it clear that he intends to provide the progressive-minded leadership that will make it work.

And if he thinks controlled-choice may or may not work, he should vote yes and give it a chance for a year, trusting that with the grandfathering provisions in place, the shape of student assignments can't possibly change so much in a year that, if insurmountable problems persist after that test period, the plan can't be set aside.

With 90 percent-plus of parents predicted to stand pat with their current school assignments for 2012-13, controlled-choice can indeed be put to a probationary trial for a year and, if the unanswered questions remain unanswered, declare it a failure and go back to square one.

Only if Hill is persuaded right now that controlled-choice can't succeed regardless of who's on the school board should he vote no — mindful, however, of the fact that his no vote makes it more likely that the plan he thinks is so terrible will be made permanent by the time of the 2013 elections.

If I were offering advice, I would advise Hill to vote yes, but not just that.

I'd advise him to speak out, starting tonight, in favor of the plan while promising to lead the process of adding the details that will make it work — in other words, I'd try to "model" (which is a word Kevin likes) the behavior of the school board leader I intend to be when I'm re-elected in a month.

Question 2: Can Hill lose the runoff? Or is he a lock?

(Answer: He can't lose ... but there is a way others could blow it for him.)

Hill got 49.7 percent of the vote in a four-way race Tuesday. In a runoff, he can't possibly lose, unless of course somebody runs a losing campaign for him.

Voting against the Tata plan, and opening himself up to the Tedesco charge that he secretly hates Tony Tata and so do his Democratic cronies, might actually help Hill if he could somehow use it to underscore for the voters that he is his own, sometimes prickly but always independent-minded man, doing what he thinks is best regardless of politics.

Because on the politics of it, he really should vote yes.

As for his campaign over the next four weeks, Cash Michaels in The Carolinian is online today with a column strongly suggesting that Hill keep the image of John Tedesco front-and-center for the voters in the runoff — just as Hill did in round one by contrasting his own record, not with Losurdo's, but with Margiotta's.

The idea of Tedesco as spokesman for the public school system in Wake County should get every Democrat in District 3 out and voting in the runoff. Independents too.

Meanwhile, all but the most diehard Republican voters are likely to stay home given that their only purpose in a runoff would be to check the box for Losurdo, whose credentials for public office are, to be charitable, lousy. in round one, Republicans were there anyway voting for Raleigh mayoral candidates Billie Redmond and Randall Williams and District A candidate Gail Wilkins in the City Council elections.

In round two, the only Republican running is Losurdo.

The one thing that might bring out the Republican faithful in that scenario is a sympathy vote for Losurdo if, that is, the Democratic campaign against her goes too far.

Hill, about as non-political a Democrat as he could be, kept his negative comments about Margiotta to issues of governance and process, not personal attacks, and he promises to do the same with Losurdo. As Losurdo has no record whatsover with governance or process, Hill's comparative ads — if there are any — will list his accomplishments on the left and leave a blank space on the right where hers should be.

That's fine.

While Hill remains above the fray, though, Democratic Party groups are busy congratulating themselves for how tough they were in their attack advertising against Margiotta. Dean Debnam and Tom Jensen, at Public Policy Polling, posted a memo this morning spelling out how their tying Margiotta to the Tea Party helped bring him down. (Debnam, PPP's owner-president, is behind at least one of the Democrat-aligned independent campaign committees that went after Margiotta directly.)

Tying Heather Losurdo to the Tea Party won't be hard. She's tied herself to it repeatedly. (As she's taken down her own Tea Party-related videos, I have to link to this anti-Losurdo piece still online from Progress NC Action that draws from them.)

Still, Losourdo's only hope in the runoff is to turn the Democrats' negative tactics back on them if they go too far. "I'm so sorry they've chosen to attack me personally," she's taken to saying.

Losourdo's biggest problem is that she has lived in Raleigh just three years, having moved from New York State. She's not all that conversant with the Wake school system. She has no credentials to be on the school board, whereas Hill — a former teacher and principal who now teaches future teachers at N.C. State — has exactly the kind of resume most voters will want.

The one way Hill can lose, IMO, is if the inde-Dem groups lose it for him with a tactless, mud-slinging campaign. Expect the Art Pope crowd on the right to bait them with a mud-slinging attack on Hill. It's bait they shouldn't take.

On the plus side, every Democrat I know is heading for District 3 this month with good thoughts about putting the adults back in charge of the Wake school system. A positive message will win it for Hill.

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