Unlocking Controlled-Choice Assignment Part 3: Potential Pitfalls

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Editor’s note: This story is Part Three of a three-part series. Read Part One and Part Two. If you have any questions about the controlled-choice assignment plan, feel free to post them on the discussion forum. We will be happy to answer your questions. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll find out from Wake County schools for you.

Parental satisfaction and the success of the newly adopted controlled-choice assignment plan rest on one key concept: making each school in Wake County desirable.

If each school is one that parents want their children to attend, then satisfaction will stay high even if parents don’t get their first choice. Also, school capacity will be naturally spread out, rather than some schools being extremely under-chosen or over-chosen.

However, if severe inequalities in the where parents want their children to go to schools begin to emerge, it could create a slippery slope towards a system of good schools and bad schools and assignments that parents don’t like.

“The opportunity is to create different school cultures that fit different kids,” said Jayne Fleener, dean of the College of Education at NC State University. “You develop specialized cultures in schools and that allows families opportunities that neighborhood schools wouldn’t allow.”

The controlled-choice plan acknowledges that “over time some schools will outperform others.”

“The key,” said assignment task force leader James Overman, “is being on top of it at the very beginning. It’s not something that you want to let go for a year or two.”

Assuming that strategy works, a hurdle is the high-poverty schools that already exist in Wake County. Since they may already be perceived as undesirable, it may be impossible to get out in front of the problems.

Twenty-two percent of Wake schools have student populations with more than 50 percent of the student body receiving free and reduced lunch. It is not the plan’s purpose to reduce that percentage over time. In fact, the plan states that the number will likely stay the same.

A crowd of around 250 people gathered recently at Durant Road Elementary School for an information session to try to wrap their heads around Wake's new choice assignment plan.

Non-Participants End Up Where There’s Room
Another snag to look for in the choice plan is when families don’t participate in the choice process to pick schools. In short, parents who don’t make choices on behalf of their children will end up with children being put in schools where there is space.

The plan goes to great lengths to establish potential methods for informing what it calls “historically under-represented communities” about the selection process. The examples include everything from calls to emails and in some cases even visiting people’s homes.

However, the plan relents “it is likely some families will not participate in one or more elements of the choice process for any number of reasons.”

Learn more about choosing your school during WCPSS sessions taking place now through Dec. 17.

Children of non-participating families will then be assigned to whatever schools have capacity left.

“Ideally, we’ll be able to follow the priorities,” for assigning those students, said Susan Pullium of the student assignment task force. Ultimately, capacity is the final deciding factor.

Overman said he doesn’t think the number of non-participants will be significant.

“If we structure it appropriately, people will not have the option of not participating,” Overman said. “They’re going to have to participate.”

Parents must “enroll” their child before he or she can become a student. However, the selection process takes place separately. Overman hopes completing the selection process will be instilled at enrollment.

If it isn’t, merely being assigned to a school with remaining capacity could be a problem. Schools with remaining capacity will be under-chosen and perhaps undesirable.

“If [non-participants’] interests are not represented, then I think that falls on the board. Not all families can make sense of what’s going on. I don’t think any of us benefit from self-interest,” Fleener said.

Fewer people living low-income areas of Wake County participated in the test drive , which could mean fewer people in those areas will participate in the choice process.

Dealing with Growth
Wake County schools are at roughly 90 percent capacity. According to the plan, Wake County schools will have insufficient capacity in five years — during the 2016-17 school year.

As the school system reaches full capacity, it’s easy to imagine fewer families will be accepted into their first- and second-choice schools.

Overman doesn’t think it will be a problem.

“If we do a good job aligning our building program and stay ahead of growth,” he said, “I’m not sure why it would reduce the number of people getting their first or second choice.”

For Fleener, the greatest concern is making sure all children have access to an excellent education.

“We can’t afford to do anything to our schools that make them less than excellent and we need all children to have opportunities to attend excellent schools,” she said. “We can be the best of the best and we owe it to our children to accomplish that.”

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