Dems Strategy for Improving Student Assignment is Long-term

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Democrats in the new school board majority see potential long-term health problems in the new controlled-choice student assignment plan that could warrant significant changes, but say now is a time to wait and watch.

Given the past two years of turbulence in school board politics and a fiercely divided public, Democratic members acknowledge changing the plan now would lead to a different kind of chaos that could hardly be justified.

“One hundred and thirty thousand promises were made back in November,” said newly elected board member Jim Martin. “While I’m extremely frustrated in where we are at [with the plan,] I would be equally frustrated at breaking 130,000 promises.”

He believes the lame duck Republican majority should have never made the promises.

“It’s an extremely frustrating situation,” Martin told the Record.

Martin has been the most vocal of critics about what he sees as long-term problems with the plan. Democratic Chair Kevin Hill has been a less vocal critic, but does see things that may become problematic. For instance, the 10 schools that are projected to have more than 70 percent of the student body receiving free-and-reduced lunch next year.

“It’s the commitment of this board that we do not want to create high-needs schools,” said Hill. “If that seems to be an unintended consequence of this plan then I think we need to look at how to change that.”

[pullquote]“It’s the commitment of this board that we do not want to create high-needs schools. If that seems to be an unintended consequence of this plan then I think we need to look at how to change that.” ~Board Member Kevin Hill[/pullquote]

“Once the assignment process has had the chance to run its course—this year,” Hill emphasized, “we can get summative data, hard data.”

Hill says they’ll look at any fallout from the plan and then start sitting down for brainstorming sessions about how it can be improved.

Martin says he has taken a look at the F&R trends and they are troubling. Based on his evaluation, schools above the 33 percent county average of F&R tend to have a rising percentage of F&R students. Schools below the county average, tend to have a shrinking percentage.

“I don’t want to put a magic number down. We’re not talking quotas,” Martin said. “Our school with the lowest F&R is down around 5 and a half, 7 and a half percent free-and-reduced lunch and our highest is 83 percent. I can tell you that spread is too big.”

“A successful assignment plan isn’t going to say here is our magic target. I think we should work at having schools move toward the county average,” he added.

Hill acknowledges that one way to strive for equity—as opposed to equality, he stresses—is put extra funds and resources into higher needs schools, but he knows the dollars aren’t there to be thrown.

“When you look at the budgetary times we’re in, money is very scarce right now,” he said.

Like Hill and Martin, new board members Susan Evans and Christine Kushner believe by melding the lessons of the past with the current lessons on student assignment, they’ll be able to bring together a plan that is best for Wake County.

“I don’t think what we had before was perfect. I don’t think what we’re trying to do now is perfect,” Evans said. “We’ll be using the data that we’re getting to try to forge something together that is more positive for the future.”

What each Democrat acknowledges is that such a strategy will take time.

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