Yes, I was watching — online — when the Wake school board decided to reopen the subject of student assignment policies late Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow my pain with the way it was done @rjgeary. A sample:
Since Wednesday, I've been turning the subject over and over in my mind looking for the good side. Here's what I see:
1) The controlled-choice plan lacked a critical diversity component; we knew that when the Republican-majority board adopted it in 2011, before the Republicans lost in the 2011 elections.
2) The Democratic-majority board seated since December, 2011 never fixed the problem. The five Democrats, in control by the narrow margin of 5-4, never came together around the obvious solution, which was to limit the number of low-achieving students in any school while holding seats for them (set-asides) in schools with few low-achievers. Nor did they come up with a different one.
3) The choice plan was always an experiment, with one potentially fatal problem: Once the desirable schools were full, people moving to Wake County — or moving within the county — would be left with a "choice" of less desirable schools.
4) This would be true unless, by some miracle (and with the addition of that strong diversity component), all schools in Wake were rated very good or better.
5) Averting the problem of all the desirable schools being full — indeed, of all the schools being full — will also require that Wake County voters approve a new school construction bond issue ASAP; Wake is adding upwards of 4,000 students a year, but beyond next year, there are no new schools in the pipeline.
6) Passing another bond issue on anything like the scale of the last one, in 2006, for $970 million, will depend on a ceasefire occurring in the student assignment wars.
7) The controlled-choice plan, fashioned as a compromise between the "neighborhood schools" side and the "diversity with reassignments side," might've allowed for such a ceasefire to hold through, say, 2013; in fact, since the hard-fought '11 elections, the losing neighborhood-schools folks have been pretty quiet, perhaps in deference to the superintendent their side hired, Tony Tata, and the fact that Tata embraced controlled-choice.
8) Reopening the debate, with a stated goal of replacing the controlled-choice approach with an "address-based" plan while keeping the "good parts" of controlled-choice — but with no clarity as to how those two very different approaches can be meshed — is rolling the dice. Or lighting a match, choose your metaphor. It's a strong bet there's not going to be a ceasefire, put it that way.
9) Can you have an address-based plan and a choice plan too? The first assures that every student will be assigned to a base school, and not just any base but one to which other kids of the same age in the same neighborhood are assigned. The second is all about not making base assignments, but rather offering a menu of choices with a high likelihood that if you don't your first choice, you'll get your second choice, But kids on the same block can end up in different schools — and schools they didn't want. I can imagine a way that the two plans could be joined together. But I'm not sure it would work in practice. And I have no idea how it would fare in terms of political acceptance. So I'll hold off trying to describe it just yet.
10) The final thing on my list today is that the way the Democratic school board took action Tuesday/Wednesday could hardly have been worse. No vetting in a committee. No process at all to build confidence that a hybrid base-and-choice plan can actually be developed. Just a "directive" put on the agenda — put LAST on the agenda — with no effort to prepare the public for it.
And if you're Chairman Kevin Hill, you know — or should know — that unless you're willing to clamp down on extraneous "discussion" by members, the item that's last on the agenda will never be discussed at all during your mid-afternoon work session, because you'll run out of time.
And then, as happened here, your regular session will begin a little late, at 5:45, and you go right into public comment, and that lasts a couple of hours, and then extraneous discussion on other agenda items goes on and on and on, so you won't even get to the BIG subject of changing student assignment policies until 11 p.m.
And you don't vote on it until 5 minutes of 1 in the morning.
And that's how it goes if you don't clamp down, and you don't put the important agenda items first, and you don't assign them to a committee so there's some groundwork laid to prepare the world for you have in mind.
Michael Alves, a consultant working with the district on the choice plan, said it was possible to merge elements of choice and base assignments. But ultimately, no plan will be able to create capacity in schools that are simply full. In those cases, the district will need a tool to decide how to distribute students.
In past years, that tool was reassignment. Under the choice plan, parents were given a list of schools to pick from in case there was not room at their first choice.
The directive suggests a "possible feature" of the new proposal be a "stay where you start" policy that limits reassignments. It does not detail how that might work given the limited number of seats available in some parts of the county and the continued addition of more than 3,000 students a year.
The directive also requests that base assignments be within "a reasonable distance" of a student's home.
The directive does not address what an appropriate socio-economic mix would be, but suggests income and parent education levels might be used as factors.
The current choice plan was originally designed to address the mix of a school by focusing on academic diversity, but that element was never approved by the board. Wake Education Partnership was involved in the early design of the choice plan before it was given to the school district in 2011 and eventually approved in October with a variety of changes.
This week's vote attracted wide media attention, partly because it triggered a partisan debate lasting well past midnight. The following day, the Partnership issued a statement critical of the full board's handling of the issue, but supportive of the directive's goals.
"Our school board and community must move forward together in pursuit of these improvements," said Partnership President Steve Parrott, and it should be done in a way that is "representative of the skills and behaviors demanded from our students for college and career success."