Progressive Voices

No, they are not “social engineers”

Wake County School Board Chair Ron Margiotta has said that he and the other members of the board are not "social engineers." He believes that using poverty and/or race to create a diverse school district would be "social engineering."

Though Margiotta is often dead wrong about a lot of things, in this case he is at least partially correct: The moment the board majority began dismantling the longstanding, nationally renowned diversity policy of the school system, they did not engage in social engineering. Rather, they were acting as political engineers.

As a term used in social science, political engineering describes using the power of government to make and apply laws and policies to change society. Most of the time, political engineering is supposed to work to make the government and its services and structures better. In this instance, however, the disposal of the diversity policy can only serve to make things worse.

In fact, strictly speaking, the majority members have not really acted as engineers at all. They have only been political. There is no real alternative plan. John Tedesco, another member of the school board majority, has addressed the board's Student Assignment Committee with only vague descriptions of how the board will assign students in the future while trying to hold to Margiotta's promise that the board does not intend to create any high poverty, low achieving schools. Genuine engineering would require a formula, a plan, an algorithm, something that can be examined and built. No such thing exists.

All that currently exists are four maps on the Wake County Public School System website and a place where people can comment. It is hard to tell if the suggestions and comments will actually be used or if this is merely an attempt to give the impression that the board is being responsive to the public. The latter seems more likely. Previously, the board majority has acted to deter participation in public meetings and completely ignored a parental survey which showed that more than 94% of Wake County families were satisfied with their school assignments.

Dr. Michael Alves, an educational consultant and the proponent and creator of an assignment system called "controlled choice," spent some time in Wake County recently. Dr. Alves was impressed by the school district. He also seemed to believe that if he was hired, he could help the board to create a plan which would allow parents to choose what school their children would attend. It is unclear, however, if his system would be better than the plan discarded by the board majority.

It is also quite possible that no one will ever know. Although "controlled choice" gives parents some ability to choose, Alves' system also takes fairness and diversity into consideration as a way to create school excellence (much like the current system that Margiotta and Tedesco have sworn to abolish). Unfortunately, while Margiotta said that the school board is considering "controlled choice," he has also said that the board would not consider current levels of poverty in the schools in making assignments.

Meanwhile, though Tedesco seems open to perhaps considering poverty, he has also stated that he does not want to use the former system of counting the number of students who qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program as a measuring stick. He has not said what he would use to measure poverty.

All of this leaves the school district in a strange position. The chair of the board says there is no intention to create high poverty, low performing schools, but he is also unwilling to consider poverty in the way students are assigned to schools. His chief ally might be willing to consider poverty, but has not provided a way to measure it. Meanwhile, there four maps and a comment section on a website. Perhaps there will be some way to create diversity out of those maps and perhaps not.

In short, Ron Margiotta is correct that he and his allies are not social engineers. What they are is a group of befuddled political engineers. They have a vague intention to avoid creating a swath of high poverty, low performing schools but no coherent or plausible plan on how they might pull off such a feat.

At this point, about the only thing the board majority has managed to successfully "engineer" is anger, confusion and a tenuous future for the students of Wake County Public Schools.

Christopher Hill is the Director of the Education and Law Project at the North Carolina Justice Center.