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Manning's mess 

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I haven't had the benefit of a law school education, so excuse me if I don't know why the words "Except for year-round schools ..." do not mean except for year-round schools.

I've read Superior Court Judge Howard Manning's decision in Wake CARES Inc. v. Wake County School Board, which purports to explain why the state law requiring public schools to start after Aug. 25 and finish by June 10 "except for year-round schools" does not give the Wake school board the power to adopt a year-round schedule and assign students to it. Sorry, but I think it does.

What's more, I think if Manning put as much thought into the consequences of his decision for Wake's school diversity policy—for poor kids, that is—as he so transparently put into worrying about summer trips and swimming lessons, he'd have read the law the old-fashioned way, with deference to the elected school board members and county commissioners whose job it actually is to provide good schools within, of course, reasonable limits.

You know, as opposed to letting activist judges run the schools. And run them into the ground.

Which, more politely, is what Wake state Sen. Vernon Malone said following a press conference Monday at which most of Wake County's African-American leaders expressed alarm at the mess before them. I asked Malone if he plans to introduce legislation giving school boards new authority to make year-round assignments. No, he said, "though it could be that we might need to provide more instruction to Judge Manning" about what the current law means.

So Malone doesn't agree with Manning's decision? "I don't agree with it," Malone answered flatly. But even if Manning was right, Malone added, the judge should've given the school board and county leaders more time to comply rather than simply toss aside their carefully, nay, painfully negotiated plans for coping with the student population boom.

"Wake County is the flagship school system in the state," Malone said, "but we've been thrown into disruption."

Listening, Wake County Commissioner Harold Webb quickly produced a graph showing how Wake's students outperform their counterparts statewide and in the other big counties (e.g., Mecklenburg, Guilford). "We're a national model," Webb said.

That's right, we are. School officials from troubled systems everywhere (as The New York Times noted) make pilgrimages to Raleigh to hear our wisdom about helping more students succeed. And our wisdom starts with this: Don't let your schools re-segregate.

As many things as Raleigh and Wake County might've gotten wrong about sprawl and beltlines and more sprawl, one thing we've gotten right is refusing to let our merged school system be re-split into a wealthy outer ring of schools-in-subdivisions and a poor inner ring of downtown-neighborhood schools. Because as soon as you give in to that, the rich schools get richer and the poor schools poorer as folks with money self-select out of "the bad schools."

There's a reason, in short, why "Inside the Beltline" still holds its own with way-out Wakefield. And it's two words: School assignments.

Or better, the two words used by Rosa Gill, the school board's only African-American member: "Controlled choice." The school board offers parents a menu of magnet schools, modified-calendar schools, year-round schools and traditional-calendar schools, but all within a framework that allows the board to balance their individual choices with assignments based on what's good for the system as a whole.

It's allowed the board to move students around so that, even as 7,000 to 8,000 new students pour into the county annually, every school still has its share of the rich kids and no more than 40 percent eligible for "free and reduced" lunches.

Bottom line: No bad schools.

Because, however, low-income students remain concentrated in Southeast Raleigh while the growth is up in Wake Forest and N.C. 55 in the west, families in Southeast have been asked to shoulder the longest travel burdens for purposes of balance. They've done so willingly.

Indeed, low-income students are disproportionately assigned to year-round schools already.

Yes, that's right. Wake's policy of assigned year-round schools isn't new—as Manning's own decision pointed out, 7,000 of the 17,000 students currently attending Wake's 20 year-round schools were assigned, plus 1,320 assigned to Wake's four year-round magnet schools.

What is new is that, as growth has outpaced the county commissioners' willingness to finance new schools, the school board and the commissioners agreed to convert 22 traditional-calendar schools to year-round status and make every new elementary and middle school year-round starting next year.

But if the school board can't assign students to the year-round schools, what happens to the balance?

Of immediate concern in the black community is whether the families whose kids are already going to year-round schools know that they now must choose them.

Long-term, though, the fear is that low-income families are less likely to choose year-round schools simply because they lack good information—and because summers off seem so much easier than finding "track-out" programs four times a year.

But if low-income families start to go their own way and the wealthy ones theirs—well, it's re-segregation by different means, but the result is just as bad. And Judge Manning, who's seen it happen in the sinking Charlotte-Mecklenburg system, surely knows that. As, hopefully, the state Court of Appeals will.

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