I wrote a column in this week’s Indy about the challenges to public education in Wake County and North Carolina. Over at The News & Observer, one of the bloggers picked it up, characterizing it as “firing shots” at the Blue plan for student assignment in Wake. Whereupon I heard from several people asking, in effect, “I thought you were for the Blue plan?”
The short answer is, I am. At least, I think I am. I fired no “shots” at the Blue plan. I did raise questions about it because it’s clear to me, as I said, that the Blue plan is what we have to work with — it’s what Superintendent Tony Tata intends to recommend to the Wake school board on June 21, and unless there’s a mutiny by the board majority, it’s what the board will endorse.
Even if I preferred the Green Plan, which I don’t for reasons I’ll explain below, it’s not really on the table. If it were, I’d raise very similar questions about it. In fact, the whole point of the column is that both plans, as well as the education wars at the General Assembly, are rooted in a pretty toxic political environment.
Given that reality, Tata’s Blue option is about as good as we could hope for. The task now is to make sure that it works as well as it can.
Truth is, I’ve started and discarded several blog posts on the subject of the Blue plan vs. the Green plan. All of them lacked conviction, however, which as William Butler Yeats famously said is disastrous whenever chaos is at hand, the center is coming apart and “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
I’ve got great conviction when it comes to believing that our public schools are the linchpin if we’re ever going to live up to our national creed — that all persons are created equal, with inalienable rights to life, liberty and happiness, and that is to “secure these rights [that] Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Kids from all backgrounds attending schools together is, to me, an ideal. You sit beside a kid whose parents are poor and yours are well-off and you can’t help thinking, Is this fair? Should something be done to make us more equal? That’s how it starts … democracy, that is. That’s how, in Yeats’ terms, the center is strengthened.
That’s what my column was about. We’ve never really achieved equal educational opportunity in this country. We’ve segregated our kids by race, and then when the U.S. Supreme Court struck that down, we started segregating them by income—in well-off suburban schools and impoverished inner-city schools. Still, the trend since the mid-20th century was in the direction of greater equality, more mixing, more diversity and a higher degree of fairness to all.
It was the trend, that is, as long as the American economy was growing and more people were sharing in its bounty. But since 2000 — since 9/11, the Bush recession, tax cuts for the rich, the Wall Street Meltdown and now, the Great Recession — the economy isn’t growing and people, consequently, are pulling back.
Unwilling to share more equally in what they perceive is a shrinking American Pie, folks lately are in a hoarding mode. They want what’s theirs, never mind anyone else. And there’s no George Bailey to persuade them that if only they’d share and share alike, everybody would be better off.
And as they retrench, parents want their own schools for their own kids. Charter schools if they can get them. Regular public schools if they can’t — but if they have be regular schools, they should be charter-like in the sense that they give “my” children a leg up over “other” children whose educational needs may be greater, but I can’t be concerned about them just now.
This, at its core, is what the great debate in Wake over student assignment policies is about. The “old” diversity supporters (the N&O loves to label them old) were the George Baileys of the county, telling people that if they’d give a little to support a
strong Building & Loan a strong school system, every school would benefit and every child too. This required some degree of personal sacrifice, however, in the sense that not every child could attend the exact school the parents wanted them to attend. Some were asked to move to enhance the overall.
A “neighborhood schools” model, on the other hand, will result in “good” schools and “bad” schools, and I don’t really think I need to spell out why that is. But in the Great Recession, as folks pull back and insist on getting theirs, many in the “good” neighborhoods are listening, not to George Bailey, but to Mr. Potter, who wants them to pull their children out of
the Building & Loan the school system. Don’t mix your money your children in, Potter advises, with those losers from the wrong side of town.