Wake County Public School System Superintendent Tony Tata thought his Blue plan for student assignment needed a test-drive. Sure enough, while Blue enjoyed a smooth ride through the Wake suburbs, it coughed and sputtered in Southeast Raleigh and Eastern Wake Countycritical rough spots for a controlled-choice plan that is heavily dependent on parents’ involvement if it’s to succeed.

The test-drive, conducted on the Wake schools’ website, had two purposes. One was to “model” how parents would react to sample lists of schoolswhich schools would they choose for their children (and in what order)? The other was to test the degree to which poverty, including lack of access to computers, would interfere with some parents’ participation.

On the latter score, the test-drive did its job: Low-income parents were hampered.

On Friday, when the one-week test was supposed to end, Tata announced that he was extending it for a second week, through this Friday, June 24, and he appealed for help in reaching low-income families. At that point, he said, more than 10,000 parents had steered the Blue test-drive, representing 85 percent of Wake’s nodes (areas). But that meant a big chunk of the county didn’t participate at all. The “soft spots,” Tata acknowledged, were in Southeast Raleigh and East Wake.

Which spelled major trouble for Blue, if it’s to fulfill its mission of letting most parents choose where their children will attend school while at the same time maintaining an acceptable degree of diversity in student populations in all of Wake’s schools.

The problem is, the highest concentrations of kids from low-income families are in Southeast Raleigh; many areas of East Wake also fall well below the county average for income. Student achievement levels, the new diversity factor in Wake since Tata’s arrival, are highly correlated with family incomes (which was the old diversity factor, as measured by a student’s eligibility for a free or reduced-price lunch, until the Republican school board majority scrapped it after winning control in the 2009 elections).

Under the Blue plan, parents in low-income neighborhoods are invited to send their children either to a magnet school, most of which are in Southeast Raleigh, or to one of about 50 so-called achievement schools (a school in which student achievement scores are above average) elsewhere in the county. Most of the achievement schools are clustered in Cary and Apex, in West Raleigh or in North Raleigh and Wake Forest.

To qualify for any of the magnet or achievement options, however, the parents must exercise their right to choose. If they don’t exercise itif they remain on the sidelines while other parents do choosethe result will be a new phenomenon for Wake County: a cluster of non-magnet “leftover” schools in low-income areas of Raleigh and East Wake characterized by high numbers of low-achieving kids.

That’s another thing Wake must try to avoid, Tata says.

The Blue, or controlled-choice, plan would be a major departure for Wake County, which for 30 years has assigned students to schools by nodes, with the school board making decisions about which nodes go to which schools. (Nodes vary in size, but in general, each one contains neighborhoods with similar income levels.)

A competing Green plan that Tata also put forward a month ago would continue the node-based process, but Tata was clear from the start that he wants the school board to go Blue. That’s not his “personal opinion,” he emphasizes. It’s his conclusion about “what’s best for the county based on objective criteria.”

Thus, after the Blue test skidded while heading east, Tata sent school officials out on Sunday and Monday to a half-dozen schools and a Baptist church in search of parents in the soft-spot areas. He also targeted the Boys & Girls Club in Southeast Raleigh on Monday, but to little avail: When Tamani Anderson Powell, marketing director for the school system’s magnet programs, arrived there, she found lots of little kids, and some bigger ones, but no parents. “It’s summer,” Anderson Powell said. “And they work.”

Nonetheless, Tata intended to put a “work plan” before the school board at its meeting Tuesday evening, detailing how a new assignment plan can be finalized in time for the 2012–13 school year. To meet that goal, all the major questions must be answered in the next four months.

Based on Tata’s comments and his presentation to the school board at a work session on June 13, here’s an overview of the major aspects of the Blue plan:

Q. What’s the purpose of the Blue plan?

A. It’s to let most parents choose a school for their children that is close to where they live (the “proximity” factor) and that operates on the calendar they wantwhether a traditional calendar or year-round. Parents wouldn’t be guaranteed their top choice in every case. They would be guaranteed a school in reasonable proximity. And they’d be guaranteed that, once their kids are in a school, they won’t be reassigned while in the same grade level (K–5, 6–8, 9–12).

Q. Does the Blue plan do away with diversity?

A. With “socioeconomic” diversity, yes. But Tata’s new diversity goal is to avoid schools with high concentrations of low-achieving students. And student achievement is highly correlated with family income. So as a practical matter, diversity is retained in a different form for families living in places with concentrated povertylike much of Southeast Raleigh.

Q. Will the Blue plan succeed in maintaining diversity?

A. It has the potential to be successful if Tata sticks to his plan and the school board doesn’t derail him.

Q. Meaning what?

A. Tata’s goal is to offer the parents of every child whose nearest school is a magnet schooli.e., students who live in the poorest neighborhoods of Wake Countyan excellent array of school choices. They’d each be given two magnet school choices and two achievement school choices and be guaranteed of acceptance at one of those four schoolsif they want it.

But there is a stumbling block to overcome. Only half the “base” population living near a magnet school can attend that school. The other halfto make room for the “magnet” students who come in from the suburbsmust go to a school outside of the base neighborhood.

Tata is promising that a “fixed percentage” of seats will be reserved in the achievement schools for students who must be relocated from a magnet-base neighborhood. He hasn’t set that number yet, however. Obviously, the number must be high enough to accommodate all the students who can’t attend either the base magnet or the nearest other magnet.

On June 13, Tata said that about 20 percent of the seats in achievement schools may be needed to make room for the kids relocated from magnet neighborhoods. That would, of course, mean 20 percent of the seats are not available to kids who live close to these schools, all of which are in upscale neighborhoods.

Q. How did the school board react?

A. They didn’tnot directly, anyway. But three members of the five-person Republican majority asked questions that hinted at some reluctance to go along with Tata on a 20 percent figure. The gist of John Tedesco and Debra Goldman’s questions was that there should be some distance limit on how far kids can be transported from a magnet-base neighborhood to an achievement school in a Western Wake location. (Goldman asked whether Cary kids could be assured of a Cary school if they wanted one.)

Chairman Ron Margiotta wondered about “capacity issues”an oblique reference to the question of how many students a suburban school can hold and still accept kids from Southeast Raleigh or East Wake.

Q. So capacity at the achievement schools is the main issue?

A. It’s one issue. The other is the problem underscored by the poor participation of low-income families in the Blue test-drive. Board member Keith Sutton, who represents Southeast Raleigh, has stated his preference for the Green plan precisely because he doubts that low-income parents will choose their schools based on achievement levels instead of proximityif they make any choice at all.

Tata has said that school officials will offer strong guidance to families when their kids enter kindergarten, the key point at which choices must be exercised. (Other key points are the move to a middle school and to a high school.)

Beyond “encouraging” them to choose the best achievement options for their kids, Tata says, it may be necessary for the school system to make those same options the “default” for parents who, for whatever reason, fail to make a choice for their kids.

Whether the board majority will go that far to preserve diverse student populations is a huge, open questionone that may require knowing the outcome of October’s school board elections to answer.