New New Assignment Plan: No Clear Measure for Balance

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Wake County schools could see the third major revision to its assignment plan in as many years. School board members got to see a rough draft of the new proposal this week. But Democrats saw one large flaw in the new student assignment plan that was unveiled: the lack of a clear measure for balancing student demographics.

The board issued a directive in June for staff to start developing a new plan that would combine the best of Wake’s previous assignment policies, including a diversity component. An overview of that plan came to light Tuesday night.

Students already in the system will be able to stay at their current school with their current level of transportation, as officials and board members often highlighted Tuesday in efforts to ward off chaos.

The plan returns Wake students to a base assignment, i.e. if you live at X address, you will go to Y school.

It also allows for a certain measure of choice. Once base and magnet assignments are handed out, any child can apply to any school in the district with available capacity.

Republicans charged that the process was moving too fast, with public hearings scheduled to begin next week. The board decided to delay those public hearings until more information about the plan emerged.

The worry for Democrats was demographic isolation. They didn’t want to see schools with high percentages of poor students, high percentages of low-performing students or strong racial majorities.

Chief Transformation Officer Judy Peppler said that such balance was taken into account when drawing new “planning areas.”

The planning areas will replace nodes, which were small geographic units used to determine base assignment. The nodes were drawn in the 1980’s.

However, Peppler said there weren’t any hard and fast rules when it came to achieving balance. Mainly, she said, the student assignment team looked at student achievement data to make sure low-performing students weren’t being packed into any given school.

Schools will become more balanced over time, she said, but because the team placed such a strong focus on stability, changes will not be quick.

“You can correct over time,” she said. But she did acknowledge that some schools in the short term could have high numbers of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch.

Board member Jim Martin pointed to a trend, first noted by the Record, that showed schools were becoming more economically stratified under the former choice plan.

“For me to be able to sign off on this, I’m going to need to see that we’re reversing that direction,” said Martin. “We’ve said that in the directive.”

One hurdle facing the board is Policy 6200, which defines how students will be assigned to schools. It was last changed by Republicans to reflect proximity as the most important value in student assignment.

Democrats will likely need to add language that defines measures for how the school system should balance student demographics.

 

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