More on the Wake school assignment plan, v. 3: The still-unsettled question of diversity | Citizen
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Thursday, September 20, 2012

More on the Wake school assignment plan, v. 3: The still-unsettled question of diversity

Posted by on Thu, Sep 20, 2012 at 4:59 PM

[Update: And sure enough, while I was writing this, the board majority has reversed course and decided to publish the staff's list. Hope it works out for them.]

The original post —

Like most people, I think, who were listening to the discussion at the Wake school board Tuesday night, my first response to the question of whether parents should be able to look online for their base assignments starting Friday — tomorrow — was why not? It's always best, isn't it, to get information out sooner rather than later? And by the way, the public has a right to know, doesn't it?

But a right to know what?

The fact is, at this point there's nothing for the public to know except that staff has on its own authority — without any sanction from the board — put together a list of base assignments for every address that is entirely hypothetical.

What the staff's work amounts to is, if the school board never establishes a policy about diversity in assignments, and if it just throws up its hands and says to us, you do it, then this is approximately the set of specific assignments we'd make under the framework we're proposing.

And even at that, the staff (and by staff I mean Superintendent Tony Tata and the folks who report to him) would be guessing what the board will decide about changes to the magnet schools, including the mix of base and application students at several of the existing magnets, as well as about transportation for students who use one of the transfer options offered in the framework. (And I wouldn't think, at this point, that Tata would want to be guessing about bus routes.)

I wouldn't want to be a board member debating policy after the staff has told 150,000 students and their parents what the outcome of my policy is going to be for every one of them.


Tata's staffers identified three specific policies that must be revised before the framework can be adopted. Two — Policy 6203 and Policy 6204 — set transfer rules and a process for capping (closing off) enrollment when a school is over capacity. Those two are significant, but their importance pales in comparison to the third, Policy 6200, which governs student assignments and how they're to be made.

The famous Policy 6200, as everyone knows who's followed the political debates over assignment, used to call for diversity in every Wake school's student body. Diversity in socioeconomic makeup. Diversity in levels of student achievement. It doesn't any more, thanks to the Republican school board majority elected in 2009 and un-elected in 2011.

The new school board majority, five Democrats, has yet to change what the Republicans did to Policy 6200, but Jim Martin was clear the other night that the majority intends to do so and — if Martin has his way — reverse the trend toward resegregation and high-poverty schools.

The point is, the rewrite of Policy 6200 should drive and govern the new student assignment plan, not the other way around.

The school board must decide whether it will continue to tolerate some schools with 70 percent and even 80 percent low-income student populations, and schools with half or more of their students failing to perform at grade level. Assuming the answer to both things is no, it must say so clearly by policy.

There's much talk, as Martin said, about using student achievement as the means of balancing school populations. But as he also said, there's no agreement even about how student achievement should be measured, let alone about the point at which low achievement in a given school would prompt different assignments to that school, added resources for the school, or both.

I'll borrow some paragraphs from the Wake Education Partnership's succinct summary of the problem:

A new approach to student assignment featuring base schools, school choices, capped enrollments and a "stay where you start" policy was generally well received this week by school board members.

But that agreement found its limits when the discussion turned to the role of student achievement in the new plan. At issue is whether the new assignment plan should try to create a targeted academic mix within schools, and if so, how that mix should be accomplished.

"To me, student achievement is the most important issue and it's the thing we have the least detail about," said board member Jim Martin.

Without that level of detail, the public can review the proposed rules governing the plan, but not the details such as where children would be assigned.


As I said in an earlier post, what the staff presented is a good framework within which to make the critical policy decisions. But without those decisions, a framework is all they have. Not a plan.

The only reason for putting a list of assignments out now, before Policy 6200 is addressed, would be if Tata wants to highjack the decision about diversity before the board majority can act. That is, dictate what the policy can or can't say by putting his own plan in first.

I don't know if that was Tata's intention. He didn't say much on Tuesday, and he's not holding his usual weekly press briefing tomorrow.

But it's clearly what Republican board members John Tedesco and Deborah Prickett intended when they pushed so hard for the staff's hypothetical assignments to be made public before Policy 6200 can be considered. They like Policy 6200 as is, with no diversity component. We know that because, of course, they voted to take it out.

On the way home from the meeting, I found myself thinking about the difference between decision-making in the private sector and in government — the public sector.

In business, it's not just standard but best practice to be very flexible, constantly updating your products and the markets you're selling in. Apple had a huge hit with the iPhone 4, but now people seem to want a little bigger screen so the iPhone 5 is a little bigger — and maybe the iPhone 6 will be bigger still. Or maybe not. Depends how the markets respond.

If Apple was in charge of student assignments, no doubt it would publish some tentative assignments, listen to the feedback, adjust accordingly, listen some more, adjust some more — but at the end of the day, Apple would feel no compunction to be fair to everyone, or even to assign every student. Businesses don't sell to everyone. They sell to market segments. Constantly shifting market segments.

In government, however, policies must be established up-front, prior to implementation, and be as fair as possible to everyone before they are put in place for anyone. You can't just make up the rules as you go along the way you can - and should — in business.

Deborah Prickett, one of the Republican board members, was exactly right when she said that every parent will focus, once a student assignment plan is published, on what it means for his/her children. That's what parents care about. They may care some about whether the plan will be fair to others. But first and foremost, they care about their own family.

And that's as it should be — or even if it isn't how it should be, it's reality.

But the school board's job is to establish a plan that's the best possible for the community as a whole. The only way to do so is to establish fair governing rules up-front and then apply them in even-handed fashion to each of the 150,000 students in the system.

That's not to say that the rules can't allow for some adjustments on the basis of fairness to individual kids.

It is to say that unless the rules are fair to begin with, no amount of jury-rigging after the fact will make them fair.

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