Reassignment rhetoric redux

Reassignment rhetoric redux

- in Fitzsimon File

The debate about the federal stimulus package isn't the only battle raging about the role of public investments and public institutions. It's also an important aspect of the opposition to the latest round of student reassignment plans by the Wake County schools.

As part of its commitment to economically diverse schools, Wake County officials recently adopted a plan to reassign close to 25,000 students over the next three years, roughly 18 percent of the system's total enrollment. The decision came despite vigorous objections by some parents, neighborhood groups, and the school privatization crowd.

Two children of State Employee Association Director Dana Cope were reassigned, prompting Cope to promise to a create political action committee to target school board members in the fall elections.  The News & Observer quoted Cope saying "how dare they use my children for a social experiment that has gone wrong and needs replacing."

The comments came in a Sunday story that compared Wake County Schools and the Charlotte Mecklenburg system that has resegregated after a court ruled in 2001 that students cannot be assigned based on race.

Charlotte officials chose not to follow Wake County's lead and use economic diversity as a reassignment factor. Students in Charlotte can now attend schools close to where they live regardless of the effect on a school's racial or economic makeup.

The two systems have almost the same number of students. Wake County is doing better in virtually every measurement of performance, lower teacher turnover, higher SAT scores and a higher graduation rate.

Charlotte has 18 percent more of its students riding buses than Wake County and spends 17 percent more in busing costs per student.  There are more low performing schools in Charlotte and poor students in Wake County do slightly better on state tests.

School privatization advocates claim the scores show that economic diversity doesn't matter, though the scores they point to are from the state's standardized testing program they routinely dismiss as flawed and manipulated by state education officials.

Wake County is achieving its better results with less money. It educates almost 4,000 more students than Charlotte with $35 million less every year.

The News & Observer did us all a favor by comparing the systems, though there's still too little attention on the motives behind some of the opposition to Wake County's plan.

Much of it is from the school privatization crowd, think thanks, and their supporters on the right that aren't interested in improving public schools, but instead want to dismantle and privatize them. They can't tolerate a government institution that the public still overwhelmingly supports.

At least half of the students reassigned in Wake County's three-year plan are changing schools because of the county's growth and the ten schools that are being built to handle it. That means on an annual basis 4,200 students are being reassigned because of the commitment to diversity. That's three percent of the total enrollment, hardly the sweeping upheaval that opponents describe.

Also left out of the heated rhetoric is the evidence that economic diversity does matter and not just in the comparison with Charlotte.

A study in Wisconsin in 2002 found that poor students improved on math and reading tests for every increase in the percentage of middle class kids in their class. Test scores of poor kids in economically diverse middle schools were dramatically higher than those of poor students in poor schools.

Poor kids have a better learning environment in diverse schools and are pushed more by their peers. Teachers and principals are generally better qualified, and more parents are involved with the school.

The News & Observer story made that painfully clear, describing the frustrating efforts to get parents involved in a Charlotte middle school that now has 72 percent of its students receiving free or reduced lunch.

Officials in Charlotte justify the resegregation and re-concentration of poverty with promises of extra funding for the struggling schools, funding that has never fully materialized. The extra money that has been allocated is now on the chopping block as the county considers budget cuts in the economic downturn.

Students at poor schools deserve to learn—economic downturn or not—and we are all better off as a community when they do.  

Cope's comments are especially troubling. He's an effective and well-respected leader of state employees and it's surprising he doesn't realize that his complaints about a social experiment are the same ones made by opponents of desegregation in the 1950s and President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s when he was booed in Charlotte for criticizing the city's system of desegregating schools. 

His pledge to start a political action committee with contributions of wealthy suburban parents is a perfect illustration of the problem. Who will start a political action committee for parents who are working two jobs and can't often make it to open house, much less chip in a few thousand dollars to buy new computers for the school?

Good for Wake County officials for sticking to their guns and standing up for all kids, not just the ones with well-connected parents. Folks who care about kids and our community ought to stop criticizing Wake County officials and start demanding that Charlotte schools learn from Wake's success.