Business Community Provides Route to Compromise in Student Assignment Debate

By Dan Behrend, staff editor

As reported in local and national news sources, a plan proposed by the Wake Education Partnership and Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce provides some middle ground in the debate over the Wake County Public School System’s (WCPSS) student assignment policy.  The proposal’s focus on stability, proximity, choice, and student achievement potentially addresses both the criticisms directed toward the former student assignment plan and the fears that a move to neighborhood schools would lead to the emergence of low-performing schools.

Wake County’s struggle to maintain a high-quality school system while accommodating an explosion in student population existed before a new coalition gained control of the school board in 2009.  The school board’s drive to implement a neighborhood schools assignment plan, combined with the tactics, rhetoric, and political affiliations of some of its members, however, made it one of the more widely discussed topics in national education news (see also, The Colbert Report).  To this politically charged and highly scrutinized debate, the Wake Education Partnership and Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce’s proposal offers an alternative that may give both sides of the debate a new route to compromise.

Three of the four guiding principles of the plan – stability, proximity, choice – directly address many of the criticisms directed toward the previous assignment policy.  Critics complained that the previous plan, which assigned students in a manner that avoided concentrating students receiving free and reduced-priced lunch, used frequent, mandatory, and disruptive reassignments.  Some families complained about long bus rides, differences in sibling assignments, assignments to schools with nontraditional calendars, students not having a consistent cohort of classmates, and the diminished sense of school community caused by frequent student reassignments.  With a focus on school choice, ending frequent reassignments, and giving weight to assignments near a student’s home, the plan clearly intends to address many of these complaints.

Student achievement, the final guiding principle, will supposedly ensure that low-performing schools do not emerge as a result of changes to student assignment.  Rather than limit the proportion of students receiving free and reduced-priced lunch, the legality of which the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently called into question, the plan limits the proportion of students scoring below proficient on state assessments at any given school.  The developers of the proposed plan suggest that socioeconomic diversity goals may still be achieved by balancing the mix of students based on achievement, since socioeconomic status and student achievement are correlated.  The plan leaves broad discretion to the school board as to what mix of student achievement to require and how that mix of student achievement will be maintained.  Giving broad discretion to the board, a majority of which voted to eliminate the prior diversity-focused assignment plan, is not likely to relieve the concerns of advocates of maintaining integration efforts.  If the board is willing to resolve these concerns, however, the shift toward student achievement may prove a pragmatic way of balancing the interests of both sides.

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