This falls in the category of “not news,” I suppose. The Wake County Board of Education is not fighting with the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
I know. This isn’t normal. Normally, these boards push and pull like whiny kids and their parentsthe school board wants a bigger budget, the commissioners cut it.
But these are not normal times for Wake, an urban county fighting for its quality of life against a rural-dominated General Assembly. And the central battlefield is public education. Wake prides itself on its public schools. At the General Assembly, at least for the current crop of Republicans in charge, hostility to public schools is fierce.
Against this backdrop, Wake school board members and commissioners have been plotting together of late in a church basement in Raleigh at forums organized by WakeUP Wake County, a civic group. The forums were open to the public. I attended two of the three, including the wrap-up session last Monday.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating the significance of these discussions by calling them remarkable. They were what our elected officials should do routinely but, given the bitter partisanship of the times, don’t. That is, they were trying out some bold ideas for reshaping Wake’s schools and making plans to bring the public and municipal leaders into their conversations.
Contrast that with state and national politics, where no good idea goes unbashedand few are even offered.
Indeed, Raleigh’s Tom Bradshaw remembers similarly gutsy talks in the early 1970s, culminating in city and county leaders deciding to merge their separate, racially segregated school systems.
That farsighted, extremely controversial decision helped transform Raleigh and Cary from sleepy towns into a booming New South metro.
Bradshaw, a banker and former state transportation chief who was Raleigh’s “boy mayor” from 1971–73, remains one of Wake’s most respected leaders. He was proud to be in the room then, he says, and proud of what he’s seeing now.
The problems facing Wake’s schools today are a 21st-century counterpart to integration. Our schools are resegregating, now by income as well as race. Meanwhile, the traditional tools for pushing backmagnet schools in Raleigh’s historically black neighborhoods, and assigning some children to schools away from their homesdon’t work as well anymore.
Why? Geography. Wake’s low-income kids are concentrated in South Raleigh and eastern Wake County. Affluent kids live in the rest of the county; more and more, they live at its edges. The resulting distancesand traffic congestionmean the magnets are harder to reach, and bus rides that used to be viable no longer are.
Consequently, Wake’s claim that, as one national expert put it in his book‘s subtitle, There Are No Bad Schools in Wake County isn’t as true as it used to be. Good numbers overall mask lesser outcomes in schools with high percentages of low-income students.
And there are more such schools. From a handful just a decade ago, Wake had 42 schools in 2014–15 in which 50 percent or more of students receive a free or reduced-price lunch. That’s out of 171 schools.
At the final forum, Commissioner Matt Calabria presented a list of “action steps” the boards are considering. These are “ideas for exploration,” Calabria emphasized. Nothing’s decided. But the objectives are clear: Reduce the number of high-poverty schools; give every child a high-quality education; add enough school capacity to accommodate Wake’s amazing growth. Some possible steps:
• Links to transit. Wake is about to roll out a transit plan, which depends on getting voters to approve a half-cent sales tax for transit next November. The plan will feature bus rapid-transit routes out of Raleigh to the east (New Bern Avenue), southeast (Route 70), west (Western Boulevard-N.C. 54) and north (Capital Boulevard, possibly Glenwood Avenue). The idea here is to locate new schools along the BRT routes so that middle- and high-school kids can take transit to and from school and to downtown Raleigh venues for special programs.
• Zoning. Municipal governments could be asked to help identify and acquire such BRT-linked school sites, and to require nearby development to include affordable housing. No affordable housing, no new school.
• Magnetize the rim. New magnet schools and small “theme” schools could be located on transit routes just outside the Raleigh Beltline, i.e., “the rim.” Such schools would be convenient to affluent suburbs and lower-income city neighborhoods alike.
• Pre-K for all. The General Assembly won’t fund pre-kindergarten programs for all 4-year olds, but Wake mightif money can be found. Studies show that good pre-K helps close the achievement gap between rich kids and poor, saving on future remediation costs.
• Lift up the strugglers. Add new resourcescounselors, teachers and teacher assistantsin low-performing schools with high-poverty numbers.
• Wake Fellows. The General Assembly canned the much-lauded N.C. Teaching Fellows program. Wake could start its own as a way to cultivate top teachers.
Other ideas followed, but the final one was key: To have a great school system, Wake’s citizens and leaders, including the business community, need to get together, figure out what to do and decide it’s worth paying for.
Because, let’s face it, the General Assembly isn’t coming to our rescue.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Resegregation, never”