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Sunday
Oct092011

The "Final" Plan

On October 4, the Superintendent released the “final” assignment plan proposal for public comment. There has been little substantive change since my last post. In brief, the proposal now restores the “right” of the last “neighborhood” attendees at Group 2 magnets (the ones that compete with private schools and charters and might be underutilized without magnet programs) to follow their “neighborhood” feeder pattern rather than the magnet pathway. It changes a few non-magnet feeder patterns (pp 77-81) in response to community input. It subtly waters down the definition of “high performing school” so more schools will qualify (p 76). Finally, it fleshes out the mechanics of the choice process (pp 16-30, 38-45), describes assignment for the 1,600 or so students with disabilities who require regional special education programs rather than mainstreamed options (pp. 31-34), and reveals the process WCPSS will deploy to ensure that every school has a chance to thrive under the choice regime (pp. 45-48).

The plan may be “final,” but it’s not complete. It remains flawed. In the rest of the post, I highlight some concerns I have that can still be fixed.

The plan will further polarize our schools by race, wealth, and achievement.

Although diversity was identified as one criterion for an acceptable plan (see p. 7), the plan makes no effort to diversify schools by race, wealth, or proficiency. The plan does include a “simulation” (pp 82-86) that suggests it will not increase the number of high poverty schools, but the simulation appears to be tautological: “[I]f we assume the same distribution of FRL percentages [i.e. the percentage of students receiving a free or reduced price lunch] across schools in a 200‐school district that we currently have in a 164‐school district, the concentration of schools above the 50% threshold will remain essentially unchanged.”

Why would we assume that a choice plan will produce the same distribution of FRL percentages across schools that we had when the assignment plan used busing to moderate differences in those FRL percentages? I would assume, instead, that folks will move in the direction the plan pushes them, i.e. toward neighborhood, or proximate, schools. And because their neighborhoods are, as a whole, more segregated by race, wealth, and achievement than their current school system, this means the distribution will not be the same. The average FRL percentage will be the same, but the system will have more high FRL, racially isolated, low proficiency schools and more low FRL, predominantly white, high proficiency schools. Grandfathering will slow this process, but it will not stop it. Watch the kindergarten classes over the next few years and see. 

To fix this, the plan should be modified to incorporate achievement-based controls that prevent any one school from being overwhelmed by low-proficiency students.

The plan does not promote achievement as it should.

As discussed in my last post, this plan does not protect kids whose parents fail to choose a school—the very kids likely to need a good school the most. It could easily do this by choosing high performance schools for them early enough in the process that they have a fair chance of being assigned to them.

Furthermore, the plan fails to ensure that there are enough seats at high performing schools to accommodate all of the children who will leave low performing areas to make room for magnet students. It is reasonably likely that there will be enough such seats in the first year of the plan, but that is true only because the most recent version of the assignment plan has relaxed the definition of “high performing” school so there are 38 of them rather than 27. Furthermore, because the plan assumes the use of every possible seat near the Group 1 magnets, growth in Southeast Raleigh will, over time, increase the outflow of students and reduce the likelihood that the children who leave Southeast Raleigh are assigned to a high performing school. This is why “set asides” are both necessary and fair. We cannot rely on luck.

The plan fails to provide key information.

The “final” plan fails to indicate whether neighborhood bus service will be available from any given node to any given school. This might play an important role in the choices to be made by some families.

In addition, while WCPSS will provide information about the number of seats available at each grade level, it does not appear to contemplate providing historical information about how many people have typically applied for those seats and with what degree of priority. Providing one piece of information without the other will not be much help.

The plan should be modified to ensure that busing information is available. Once there is an historical record, it should ensure that historical choice information is available too.

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Don’t forget to vote on Tuesday.