February 8, 2009
Whose schools work better?
Wake disperses low-income students with busing; Charlotte gives high-poverty schools extra money
T. Keung Hui, Staff Writer
North Carolina’s two largest school systems have taken vastly different approaches to two thorny issues — student reassignment and educating low-income students with hefty academic deficiencies.
Wake County, the state’s largest district, has used buses instead of greenbacks to address the academic needs of low-income students.
To meet the demands of growth and support a diversity policy aimed at reducing the number of high-poverty schools, Wake’s system moves thousands of students each year to different schools, sometimes sending kids on bus rides of more than 20 miles.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the second-largest district in North Carolina, has shifted to a system of largely neighborhood schools, resulting in a stratified mix of affluent schools in the suburbs and high-poverty schools near downtown Charlotte.
Instead of busing kids to balance out the level of low-income students at each school, the district pours millions of dollars into these high-poverty schools each year to boost the performance of academically disadvantaged students.
Despite some community complaints, school leaders in each district say they’re not contemplating a change. But in Wake County, which adopted a plan last week to reassign 24,654 students over the next three years, there’s a push from upset parents to adopt an approach similar to Charlotte’s.
“Charlotte is not proving to be a good system,” said Rosa Gill, chairwoman of the Wake school board. “They’re still having problems. They’re going back to a segregated school system. The citizens of Wake County aren’t looking for that.”
Molly Griffin, chairwoman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, said the district is doing a pretty good job considering it has so many low-income students. Just over half of Charlotte’s students receive federally subsidized lunches, compared with 28 percent in Wake.
“Our academic results are just as good as [Wake’s],” Griffin said. “I’ll fight you on that.”
Despite the different approaches, the academic results among minority and at-risk students are very similar in both districts, with only a narrow gap in test scores. But Charlotte also has many more low-performing schools than Wake and has a harder time recruiting teachers to work in these tough schools.
Through the 1990s, both Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg based students’ assignments on race to try to keep schools integrated. Wake did it by choice; Charlotte was following a federal court order.
But as federal courts raised more and more questions in the 1990s about race-based school assignments, Wake switched in 1999 to student assignments based on family income. The policy was based on research showing that academic performance drops when a school has too many low-income students.
Busing order ended
Charlotte continued with race-based student assignments until a lawsuit by parents resulted in a 2001 court ruling ending the busing order.
Rather than adopt Wake’s approach of using family income, in 2002 Charlotte began to let students attend schools close to where they live.
That approach is similar to what Wake parents advocated at a meeting Thursday. Angry about the latest reassignment plan, the parents gathered to plan how to elect school board candidates who would give top priority to sending students to schools in their community.
These parents say Wake’s diversity policy isn’t working. They say they’d rather provide more money instead to high-poverty schools.
“How dare they use my children for a social experiment that has gone wrong and needs replacing,” said Dana Cope, a Raleigh parent of two reassigned students. He heads the new Children’s Political Action Committee, which intends to back candidates in this fall’s school board elections.
Charlotte’s current approach has led to some dramatic shifts, turning once-integrated schools into ones now largely populated by minority and low-income students.
But Sharon Starks, a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system’s equity committee, said families now feel more connected going to schools in their community. She said the fear of student reassignment has lessened.
“The schools are different,” Starks said. “The racial balance is different now. The suburbs where I live are extremely diverse, just not black-and-white diverse.”
For Joni Trobich, an officer in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PTA Council, the shifting demographics have had ominous consequences. She sees a growing imbalance between affluent suburban PTAs with $100,000 budgets and those at poor schools that can’t provide many services to students.
“The poor schools are getting poorer,” Trobich said.
Schools in Wake County aren’t free from the battle between the haves and have-nots. But school officials do have a goal of trying to cap the percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches at 40 percent in individual schools. Failing that, school officials try to have schools in the same area have similar percentages of low-income students.
“We in Wake County pride ourselves in that all our schools are good schools,” said Ann Denlinger, president of the Wake Education Partnership, an advocacy group that backs Wake’s diversity policy.
Charlotte has a series of programs to target high-poverty schools with more resources. Those schools receive extra supplies, smaller classes, hiring bonuses, annual teachers’ incentives and priority for hiring teachers.
Griffin, who heads the Charlotte school board, explains the assignment policy this way: “While I would personally prefer more racially and economically diverse schools, given the legal proceedings, we’ll educate the high-poverty kids where they’re at.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg school administrators said they could not provide a breakdown showing how much they spend on high-poverty schools because the finance staff is tied up with preparing the 2009-10 budget.
But money for some programs at those schools would be reduced as part of a list of $53.3 million in possible spending cuts that Superintendent Peter Gorman presented to the school board last month. County and state officials asked the school district to identify the budget cuts.
Griffin said that district leaders realize the need to protect programs for high-poverty schools but that in making cuts it’s hard to leave any part of the budget untouched.
Leonard “Deacon” Jones, president of the Swann Fellowship, a community group that opposed ending Charlotte’s busing program, said the proposed cuts show the dangers of thinking that additional money could make up for resegregating the schools.
“My fear is that some people feel it’s cheaper to build jails than to provide the schools what they need,” Jones said.
Even with the incentives, Charlotte has had difficulty recruiting and keeping veteran teachers in high-poverty schools. The school district’s 2009 equity report found that “the rate of improvement is insufficient” in meeting staffing goals at the high-poverty schools.
Proposals from Superintendent Gorman to require veteran teachers to work at the high-poverty schools have been rejected by the school board.
Denlinger argues that Charlotte’s difficulties getting top teachers to work in high-poverty schools help show why Wake’s approach to reducing the number of high-poverty schools is better. Wake has a lower teacher turnover rate than Charlotte.
“Schools that are balanced attract and recruit excellent teachers,” Denlinger said.
The Wake system doesn’t offer teachers incentives to work in high-poverty schools. Wake does spend at least $8.7 million in local dollars to support state programs to help high-risk students.
Last year, Wake school leaders complained about getting less money from the county commissioners than the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Wake gets $35 million less in local money than Charlotte.
“If we could spend the kind of money that Charlotte was spending, we could make a greater gain in achievement,” said Gill, the Wake board chairwoman.
When it comes to comparing how Wake and Charlotte are doing academically, perspective counts.
Lindalyn Kakadelis, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member, points out that the gap between Wake and Charlotte among low-income students passing both the state math and reading end-of-grade exams is two-tenths of a percentage point. She noted that the gap has shrunk since Charlotte ended busing.
“The gap between [Charlotte-Mecklenburg] and Wake County is closing,” said Kakadelis, now president of the N.C. Education Alliance, a group that supports more charter schools and the use of vouchers for private education. “It’s closing favorably for CMS [Charlotte-Mecklenburg] and not favorably for Wake.”
The similarity in the results for low-income students plays into the arguments made by critics of Wake’s diversity policy. The Wake school board recently rejected a request to study whether the diversity policy is helping individual students.
David Holdzkom, Wake’s assistant superintendent for evaluation and research, counters that Wake outperforms Charlotte among most individual student groups on state exams. He also noted that Charlotte has far more schools with lower passing rates on state exams than Wake.
Wake school board member Eleanor Goettee said Wake schools have avoided the extremes of academic quality found in Charlotte schools.
Charlotte has more high schools than Wake in Newsweek magazine’s annual list of top public high schools. But in 2005, Wake Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. singled out four high schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system for committing what he called “academic genocide” against mostly black, disadvantaged students.
Charlotte has “10 outstanding high schools and they’ve got others that are awful,” Goettee said. “We don’t want to look like that. You don’t want to fall to that.”
Griffin, the Charlotte school board leader, said Wake shouldn’t think it’s doing so much better at educating students.
“We haven’t yet learned how to reach our high-poverty kids,” Griffin said. “But neither has Wake.”
Starks, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg parent, said it’s a case of agreeing to disagree over who has a better approach.
“I think we sometimes get a bad rap from Wake County,” Starks said. “In my opinion, I don’t think you’re [Wake] doing anything superior to what we’re doing in Charlotte. We’re both trying to do the right thing. We’re just doing it differently.”
NUMBERS IN WAKE
28: Percentage of low-income pupils in the Wake public schools
137,706: Students enrolled in grades K-12
24,654: Students who will be reassigned in the next three years, according to the plan adopted last week. That’s about 1 in 6.
66,151: Students who ride the bus
$541.56: Busing cost per student