Cary, N.C. — Democratic school board members who voted in favor of changing the Wake County Public School System's barely year-old student assignment plan reassured parents Wednesday that the vote wasn't an effort get rid of the current plan but to improve upon it.
After hours of debate that went into the early hours of Wednesday morning, the Democratic-controlled board voted 5-4 along party lines in favor of a directive for school system staff to develop a revised plan for the 2013-14 school year that integrates the best practices and strategies from both the current plan and the previous plan.
The current plan, commonly referred to as the "controlled-choice" plan, allows parents to rank among a list of schools where they would prefer their children to attend. The school system, however, ultimately decides placement based on the feedback.
Under the previous plan, the school system shifted students to schools across the county in an effort to keep schools socio-economically diverse.
“The importance of diversity in our schools – how we try and maintain diverse schools – is something we have to look at with whatever plan we put on the table," school board Chairman Kevin Hill said. "Let’s try to find what is the best of the plans that we have.”
In the directive, board members say the revised plan should focus on student achievement, stability and proximity and that each address should be assigned a school or schools within a "reasonable distance."
“The idea is to find ways to continuously improve," Hill said. "I don’t know how you do that if people are afraid to put those things on the table – what's not working and what could work."
Superintendent Tony Tata, the architect of the controlled-choice plan, and his staff have until September to bring forth a new plan.
"We serve at the direction of the board, and we will take that direction, and we will try to make an even better plan, going forward," he said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
Over the past few weeks, he has said that, despite the need for some tweaks, most parents have been satisfied with the new plan.
Student transfer numbers appear to support that claim. They are down by almost half, from 4, 227 to 2,439, according to the school system.
Other board members, however, pointed to numbers that show the choice plan is creating a higher number of schools with a larger number of low-income students – something that prompted the state NAACP last week to complain to federal civil rights investigators already looking into the student assignment plan.
The group released a statement Wednesday evening in support of the school board's decision to revise the plan.
"The North Carolina NAACP, which has been deeply involved in student assignment issues and integration of public schools since its inception in 1909, regards this critical conversation as long overdue," state NAACP President Rev. William Barber said in the statement.
Wednesday morning's vote is the latest chapter in an ongoing public struggle over how students should be assigned to schools in the state's largest school district.
In 2010, a Republican-controlled board majority voted to replace the diversity-based assignment plan, saying that it caused instability in Wake County families and that it wasn't working to improve student achievement.
Opponents of the Republican-backed plan argued that it would lead to student segregation, high teacher turnover and a lower quality of education for low-income students.
Board member John Tedesco, who voted for the controlled-choice plan in 2010, said changing the assignment plan now would be a step in the wrong direction.
"To go back to the old business as usual with reassignment year in and year out down the pipe, that is the wrong way to do," he said.
The board's latest decision drew similar reaction from both parents and groups with a stake in Wake County education.
About two dozen people addressed the school board Tuesday night about the student assignment issue – both in support of and against changing it without giving it a chance.
Parent Erin Gaynor was among them.
"They're trying to tweak something that hasn't even been put into place," she said. "The infighting is not going to solve this problem, and we need to get past that."
The Wake Education Partnership called the decision disappointing and frustrating.
The Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to members Wednesday afternoon saying that reopening the student assignment discussion without giving the current plan a chance would create "new community uncertainty."
"The problem remains inadequate school capacity, an issue to be discussed in the months ahead," the chamber said, referencing the need for school construction bonds next year.