Missteps in the march to resegregation

Missteps in the march to resegregation

- in Fitzsimon File

The Gang of Five that now runs the Wake County Board of Education can't be too happy these days, as their clumsy ideological efforts to dismantle the system's nationally recognized student assignment policy are running into trouble at every turn.

Tuesday, the board majority learned that 94.5 percent of parents who responded to a recent survey about year-round schools said that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their child's school without regard to the calendar.

That does not sound like a community clamoring for major changes in the way the school system is run or the way students are assigned.

The board also declined to approve changes in assignments for several hundred students in response to a board vote last month changing the way assignments to year-round schools are made.  Board members said they weren't ready to change the assignments without more review and discussion.   

It turns out overhauling student assignments is more complicated that the Gang of Five's campaign rhetoric claimed.

School officials will instead proceed with taking requests from parents for magnets and year-round schools under the second-year of the three-year assignment plan approved by the old board, the one intent on maintaining healthy diverse schools, not abandoning them.

In the days leading up to Tuesday's meeting, Gang of Five leader John Tedesco explained his vision for a new reassignment plan to abolish the diversity policy and create what he calls community schools based on assignment zones. Tedesco admitted that his proposal would lead to the creation of high poverty schools and would significantly change the popular magnet school program, an important piece of the diversity plan.

Debra Goldman, the increasingly more reluctant Gang of Fiver, told reporters she wanted to protect the magnet system, not overhaul it, which throws a major wrench into Tedesco's plan.

Tedesco's admission that his zone assignment scheme would create high poverty schools contradicts the repeated promises by Tedesco and the new majority that they would not resegregate the schools.  Race and economic status are sadly closely aligned in Wake County.

Assistant Superintendent Chuck Delaney told the Independent Weekly that abandoning the diversity policy would create as many as 10 high-poverty schools with as many as 80 percent of the students eligible for free and reduced lunch.  

The experience of other districts shows that a concentration of poor students at that level is likely to prompt middle class parents to abandon the schools, often leaving them with close to 100 percent poor students.

Research is clear that schools with high concentrations of students eligible for free and reduced lunch are less likely to have experienced, top flight teachers, one of the most important factors in student learning.  
Former school board member Bill Fletcher, a conservative Republican, told WRAL-TV that the high poverty schools would be a disaster. "If we're not careful, we will see our teacher turnover rate go up, costing the district at least $15,000 for every position vacated," Fletcher said. "We'll see academic achievement suffer. We'll see teacher attraction suffer."

Given that poor students don't perform as well in overwhelmingly poor schools, Tedesco's grand plan would create two school systems, one middle class, white and successful and one poor and struggling in which the vast majority of the students are African-American and Latino.  

Tedesco says his plan would address that with more funding for poor schools, which Dr. Gerald Grant described as throwing money over the wall in his book comparing Wake County Schools to systems in Syracuse.  

The experience of school districts around the country shows that doesn't work, not to mention that it sounds a bit odd for politicians so closely aligned with Republican Party to propose throwing money at a problem to make it go away.

Tedesco and most of the rest of the Gang of Five acknowledge that the zone scheme or any proposal to end the diversity policy can't be implemented until the 2011-2012 school year.  And that's assuming that Tedesco can convince Goldman to rethink her opposition to dramatically reworking the magnet system.  

The delay is good news for people worried about Tedesco's plan for rich zones and poor zones, and it gives more time for parents who are currently satisfied with their children's schools to speak out, all 94.5 percent of them.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.