Education

'Controlled choice' concept goes before Wake schools committee

Posted July 27, 2010 7:06 a.m. EDT
Updated July 27, 2010 7:30 p.m. EDT

— An education consultant with 35 years' experience outlined a strategy Tuesday before a Wake County Board of Education committee that he said goes beyond simply drawing lines to meet population and school capacity

Michael Alves presented to the board's student assignment committee a concept called "controlled choice," which divides a school system into zones based on a computer model that distributes the student population so that each area is representative of the entire school system.

The school board committee is working on implementing an assignment policy that tries to place students in schools closer to where they live. It's a reversal of the current policy, in which some students are bused so that no school in the district has more than 40 percent of students receiving free or reduced-priced lunches.

Those in favor of the busing policy fear that eliminating it will create pockets of poverty, increase teacher turnover and segregate schools.

Proponents of the community-based assignment model have said the plan will create stability in students' education and give parents' choices.

Alves said the controlled choice concept can give parents more options in their children's education and give students stability without creating high-poverty schools.

The concept has both opponents and proponents agreeing that the concept could work in Wake County.

"If the committee looks at the task that he's laid out, in terms of fair, equitable representation of the community, that will give us some ground to work on," said board member Kevin Hill, who has opposed the community-schools plan.

Controlled choice, Alves said, has to incorporate both a comprehensive plan to get parents to be involved, and it has to have a school-improvement component so that “under-chosen” schools can borrow from the schools that have established themselves as popular choices.

It is, he said, analogous to trying to figure out why one pizza parlor is more popular than another. What are the successful schools – the highly sought-after schools – doing right?

Equity is essential, Alves told the committee, in having parents accept that the schools have “a universal system of choice, a fair system of choice.” Without that perception, he said, “Your plan will fail.”

Implementing a controlled choice plan also requires that a school system have one strategic plan for explaining the system to parents and getting them to participate and another plan for improving schools that parents do not choose.

Parents choose schools based on the quality of their programs, expectations in the community rise, and schools have to meet them, Alves said.

“It’s like a referendum for the parents,” Alves told the committee, which has three board members and one committee member from each of the nine school board districts.

“If we’re going to be fair to people, we’ve got to put our money where our mouth is” in funding all schools, committee Chairman John Tedesco said. He has led the drive toward community-based assignment and says regularly that resource allocations among the Wake schools are inequitable.

Important, Alves told the group, is that students in schools are guaranteed they can stay there is they want. Choice should not involve forced reassignments, he said.

After Alves’s talk, the committee worked through maps the staff had prepared based on suggestions for ways the county could be divided – ZIP codes, school board districts, school transportation districts and others.

They also had what community member Ann Sherron labeled “lively repartee” about whether the new assignments will consider poverty in seeking diversity. Board Chairman Ron Margiotta promised in a statement at the last board meeting that the new plan will not create high-poverty schools, as many board critics have predicted.

Tedesco said assignment would use choice within attendance zones or larger regions encompassing a few zones to create diversity by attracting students and added that the board has specifically ruled out looking at economic status in school assignment.

“How do you measure it if you don’t have a measuring stick?” Sherron asked him. Tedesco said later that the schools will have easy access to income information about students but will not use it in making assignments.

The new assignment plan is due within a year, but Tedesco said that incorporating Alves’s ideas could be done.

“This is parallel to what we’ve been talking about,” he said.

Meanwhile Tuesday, 19 people protesting the community-based student assignment plan who were arrested at last week's school board meeting spoke out publicly for the first time about why they protested.