Michael Alves, the Massachusetts-based guru of “controlled choice” plans for student assignment, made his Wake County debut Tuesday in the role of gray-haired eminence who just might be able to forge a peace between the warring pro-diversity and pro-neighborhood-schools forces.
At the Wake school board’s Student Assignment Committee, Alves said he’s seen some horrible inner-city schools in his years of consulting, so as he was driven around in Raleigh the day before, he kept expecting to see at least one — but never did. He only saw good schools.
Alves didn’t add, but might’ve, that the reason could be the one given by Syracuse professor emeritus Gerald Grant in his book, Hope and Despair in The American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh: It’s the diversity policy that the new school board majority chucked out immediately after taking power.
The new majority complains that they’re misunderstood. They do not “intend” to resegregate the Wake schools, Ron Margiotta, the board chair, insists. “The difference is huge between my intent and the perception” of her critics, says Debra Goldman, the vice chair.
Well, OK, in the spirit of diversity, let’s take the majority at face value. Let’s posit that, although it sure looks like they’re going to resegregate the school system, intentionally or otherwise, maybe we’re only seeing it that way because our experience with civil rights issues is so different from theirs.
That is, so many on the pro-diversity side, both black and white, come out of the civil rights movement (or their parents did) and are very familiar with what White Backlash looks like. That’s not the case with the all-white, all-Republican school board majority, who would have us believe that racism is a thing of the past and the big problem in Wake County is the one they’ve experienced—which is instability in school assignments.
So let’s put ourselves in the majority’s place, even though they resolutely refuse to put themselves in ours. Let’s say that we want to curb instability — too many students reassigned too often to schools too far away — by means of a new system of assignment zones in the county. But we also don’t want resegregation, which Goldman calls “a horrifying and hideous thought.”
If we — they — intend to achieve both outcomes, then we all should be listening to Alves, who says the fundamental principle the board must follow when establishing its zones is “equity” — basic fairness. What that means, he says, is that in drawing the lines, the board must create zones that are “equivalent” in terms of student achievement and socioeconomic makeup. Each one should be, as much as possible, “a microcosm of the county.”
For eight months, the board majority has rejected every suggestion, and every motion by one of the members in the pro-diversity minority, that socioeconomic data — the number of students in a neighborhood who are eligible for a free or reduced lunch — should remain a part of the student assignment equation.
Alves made it clear that such data must be factored in, along with students’ test scores, to avoid having a system “where some children are benefitting and some are not.”
“You don’t want any family disenfranchised or disadvantaged because of where they live,” he told the committee and its chair, John Tedesco. “If you do that, your plan will fail.”
And fail quickly, Alves added.
Alves has worked with school systems all over the country to establish controlled-choice plans. The basic idea is that no student is assigned to any school; rather, they (and their parents) choose where they want to go, and their second choice, and so on. The only constraint is that the schools they choose must be in their zone.
If too many students choose the same school, lotteries thin out the list. If not enough choose a school, it’s probably because it’s a bad school, and steps must be taken immediately to improve it.
Alves’ first such plan, and it’s still in use, is in Cambridge, MA. That’s a small enough place, with 15 schools and 5,700 students, that it needs no zones: Students can apply to any school in the city.
Wake County’s too big to be just one zone, Alves said, though some schools in the middle — in Raleigh — might be open to students countywide. He suggested zones of about 20,000 students, equivalent to a medium-sized district, might be about the right size. If so, Wake’s 140,000 students would yield seven zones.
But Alves couldn’t make this point often enough: If the zones aren’t equal in quality — if some are “good” and some are no — parents will know it immediately and they’ll move to the better zones if they can afford to; the bad zones will be left with under-capacity buildings occupied by kids from low-income households.
This is the outcome that the will be what the pro-diversity side defines as resegregation, and which the school board majority adamantly denies that it intends.
So what does the majority intend? As Alves says, we’ll know for certain at the point when they draw zones on a map and either use the proper data to measure whether they’re fair, or else they’ll refuse to use it.
“That’s the crossroads,” he told Tedesco’s committee. ”Because you have the data.”