Wake County school board chairman Kevin Hill is pointing to the need to change the student assignment plan for diversity reasons and downplaying concerns the recent vote will negatively impact a looming school bond issue.
In this interview last Tuesday on the Bill LuMaye Show on WPTF, Hill said the reason for passing the student assignment directive was the data they had been receiving over the last month about school demographic trends from the new choice plan. Hill said they were concerned that they could add 10 new high-needs schools with high levels of poverty.
"I've heard the superintendent on record all spring basically say there's going to need to be some changes, there's going to be some tweaks," Hill said. "As a board we've been supportive of the choice plan through the spring, but I think this data was kind of alarming in terms of where enrollment was going at several schools. The superintendent again is on record as saying it's cheaper to keep a school from becoming high risk than to deal with a school once it is high risk."
LuMaye was on vacation so Democratic strategist Perry Woods and Republican consultant Luther Snyder were co-hosting. Woods worked for Hill during last fall's school board elections while Snyder worked for Hill's runoff opponent, Heather Losurdo.
Woods said that high-needs schools cost more money, like at Walnut Creek Elementary School. Hill agreed with that point about high-needs schools needing more resources.
Woods asked why the board acted now and didn't wait 60 days as some had asked. Hill answered that, with them in the middle of the magnet school review, they were told they needed to act now to start the pre-planning to have an impact for the 2013-14 school year.
Snyder asked about the impact of the vote on future bond funding and why they had made such a "drastic change" instead of "letting it play out" and make some tweaks to the choice plan.
"Luther, I think it gets back to finances and using public dollars wisely," Hill answered. "The trends that we see right now indicate that we will be creating 10-15 schools that will have higher needs in terms of resources. I feel what we need to do with assignment is to find a way that will incorporate a base address, look for the best pieces.
I met with the superintendent today. Look for the best pieces of the choice plan. Look for the best pieces of previous plans and try and put together a plan. The challenge to staff, I think, is to try to put together a plan that will minimize the creation of higher-needs schools."
Woods jumped in to add that "I do know that the board is committed though to try to prevent what used to be beforehand, which is sort of the constant reassignments." Hill answered by pointing to looking at a stay where you start policy. But Hill also said that reassignment was the result of Wake being "a victim of our own success" in attracting so many new students that they needed to build and fill new schools.
Woods restated Snyder's question about whether the board vote might make it harder to pass a bond issue.
"I think it might by waiting might also make it harder to have a positive impact on those schools that are drifting toward becoming high-needs schools," Hill answered.
Hill then pointed to the recent Winston-Salem Journal article on the "tremendous amount of resegregatiom" in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools over the past 15 years.
"I've been on record, and will continue to be on record, that I think we owe it to our students," Hill said. "Diversity is a key component of the world they live in. I feel strongly that we need to have all types of diversity in our schools: socioeconomic, racial, ethnic.
When I was growing up, for me a big decision was do I want to go down to the coast for the weekend? I look at friends of mine who have kids right now and they're spending a summer in Beijing, or they're off to Paris. So the world has become so much smaller that I think it's important that our students be exposed to the diversity in schools that they're going to be exposed to in the greater world."
Woods said "they're darned if you do, darned if you don't" on whatever the board did with the choice plan. Woods also said that when it comes to passing a bond, they're in some ways "separate issues" from assignment.
"We have a responsibility," Woods said. "We have no choice as a county. We have to build schools."
Woods added that if a bond doesn't pass, it will be more expensive to pay as you go to build new schools. Hill agreed, adding that it's the commissioners and not the school board who hold the purse strings. Hill said the school board and superintendent need to make the case for the bond.
Snyder asked what elements of the choice plan might be kept "so this doesn't really look like it's reverting back to diversity busing and everything else." Hill answered that staff is starting to look at ideas but he's not certain what will be recommended.
"What I think I can say with assuredness, based on the directive, is some component of it is going to be tied to a base address," Hill added. "Now in terms of looking at choice, I think there will be a considerable amount of choice in the plan: year-round, traditional, magnet, academies. Now if staff comes back with trying to throw in some sort of a choice school as one of the selections as well, I don't know. We'll have to look at that."
Woods stepped in with his thoughts on choice.
"I have to be honest," Woods said. "I think choice is like a completely misused word. I mean it's not a choice to those families who didn't get their first, second or third choice. Mandatory school assignments happen in every school district in the country. It's unavoidable.
And the fact is our previous plan, in many ways, had more choices than what you have currently. I think the average elementary school address used to have like 30 different choices they could apply for. Now they have about four or five."
Woods also accused supporters of the choice plan of not backing asking for additional resources to make sure it worked. The school board's vote on the budget request was 6-3 with all three dissenters having voted for the choice plan in October.
Woods also questioned the choice plan's use of feeder patterns. Hill responded by pointing to how next-door neighbors might be on different feeder patterns for middle school because they're on different elementary school calendars. Hill also questioned how choice-plan supporters said they could guarantee a K-12 feeder pattern for students.
"I think the feeder patterns is an issue that we've got to look at," Hill added. "I've never felt that, as much as we grow, that we could guarantee a family if you start here in K, this is where you'll be for the next 12 years in terms of a 12-year feeder pattern. I've felt that's going to be a tough one. We made a lot of promises."
Woods questioned how they'll get people to pick new schools. Hill said that was a concern for him too as he brought up from his days as a Wake principal how families are upset about reassignment.
Hill cited an example of how Lynn Road Elementary families "came kicking and screaming" when they were reassigned to his school, Jeffreys Grove Elementary. Hill said that three years later, those families "went kicking and screaming" when they were reassigned back to Lynn Road.
"Most parents and children want to stay where they start," Hill continued.
Woods asked if, at the end of the day, is having any effort to try to have balanced schools the bottom line.
"I think if there is a bottom line I think it is to try to," Hill answered. "The parents that I've spoken with, and there's been a bunch of them, stability trumps proximity."
"Stability first," Woods interjected.
"Then probably proximity behind stability," Hill continued. "What they all want is a good school for their child. Achievement is the piece we can't overlook here."
Snyder charged that with all the busing they've taken their eye off the ball on student achievement. Hill responded that "there's volumes of research and data, where a child attends a school and what the demographics of that school are, it does have an impact on the achievement."
Hill pointed to a study of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools by the Swann Fellowship that he said indicates that once a school goes above 55 percent F&R, "in most cases, the research shows that achievement for all students, not just the F&R students, starts to come down some."
Woods chimed in to say that studies also show that F&R students in balanced schools it may not help or hurt them but a "regular student in a high-poverty school, those are the ones that tend to go down."
"Luther to me," Woods continued. "This issue about diversity has never been about having Johnny sit next to Antoine or anything like that. It's really been about efficiency in that every study we know shows that once you reach a tipping point of poverty in schools, it costs more money to keep good teachers there.
It costs more money to make it work and the reason why we always try to keep balance in our schools was because it's ranked the most cost effective way of educating our kids. I think that's what lost on folks often times."