Board reviews assignment plan, identifies some issues

CMS board members meet Tuesday evening, May 26, to begin a discussion of the guiding principles that are behind the current student assignment plan.

CMS board members meet Tuesday evening, May 26, to begin a discussion of the guiding principles that are behind the current student assignment plan.

May 26, 2015

“We would not get a fully accurate response if we asked parents why they choose to go to charter schools, let’s put it on the table here, because they will not say the real reasons that they’re going. They’re going to say it’s because it has a big red bow on it and it’s shiny and new and there’s a waiting list and I want my kids to go to the big red bow and shiny school. It’s not that.

“It’s that they don’t want their kids to go with kids from poverty and kids that are Hispanic and they’re not going to say that if you ask ‘em. That’s just reality…

“They [also] say that they are doing that so they will never have to be reassigned.”

– Rhonda Lennon, District 1

“We have to take a look at every single school that we have and say, ‘Would I want my child, my grandchild, my niece, my nephew to go to this school?’ And if not, why not? And what are we going to do about it?”

– Ericka Ellis-Stewart, At-Large

And so began a board discussion of CMS student assignment, as one member isolated herself and her constituents, and another used an easily understood standard to issue a call to improve achievement for all children.

The latest discussion was at a full board meeting May 26 under the direction of facilitator Dr. Cathy Mincberg. Two earlier meetings of the board’s policy committee set the stage, and the conversation returns to the Policy Committee on Thursday, June 9 at 10:30 a.m. in a fifth-floor conference room of the Government Center. MIncberg suggested that more facilitated discussions lie ahead for the full board, but no dates were discussed on May 26.

With Mincberg defining the session as “understanding, not particularly problem-solving,” the session focused on details about how the system works, as well as allowing board members to list concerns about how it now works.

The discussion is part of a once-ever-six-years full review that the board said it would consider doing every six years. Staff would like to have the board complete its discussion of beliefs, goals and guiding principles in time for official approval of any changes by December 2015, to be followed by another year of hashing out details of any student assignment changes, which would be in place by December 2016 for implementation in August 2017. The discussion begins as N.C. District Judge Howard Manning, who is assigned to the long-running Leandro school resources lawsuit, prepares for yet another hearing, this one in July, on how North Carolina and its school districts like CMS will make good on the N.C. Constitution’s mandate that all children have access to a sound basic education. The suit has been running for more than a decade, and in that time the N.C. Supreme Court has set out specific guidelines for judging whether schools are delivering on the mandate. One of the standards is reading proficiency by 3rd grade. About half of CMS third-graders fail that standard.

With three of the board members’ discussions already held, the board may have only scratched the surface. But here, listed in the form of questions, are some of the key issues on the table.

Do some existing assignments now impede academic achievement?

Supt Ann Clark asked for more definition of how assignment can “contribute to positive, supportive learning environments,” and whether assignment creates workable schools “or if, in fact, it’s the driver” that creates some schools that work and some that don’t.

District 4 board member Tom Tate asked if assignment itself is now a ceiling preventing any further increase in graduation rates. He later asked whether the current assignment system “becomes a block to some kids getting the education that we say they need them to get and that we want them to get.”

What does the ‘home-school guarantee’ actually guarantee?

For some parents, the language of the 2002 assignment plan was vitally important: It signaled to them, after sometimes annual reassignments because of busing for desegregation and for growth, that once they lived somewhere, an assignment was guaranteed that they could count on. The assigned school might not be closest as the crow flies, but it was close. It meant that the district was giving them some control over the children that their children would see every day.

For wealthy parents, the guarantee meant they could buy a house in the attendance area of their favorite school, and be guaranteed a seat in their favorite school. Staff interpreted the home-school guarantee as meaning that boundary lines should not be moved just for overcrowding. So while the guaranteed seat might be in a trailer, it was guaranteed.

For parents assigned to an underperforming school and who didn’t have the money to move, the home-school guarantee mostly meant a bad school experience for their child. They could take some actions: They could opt for an uncertain chance of winning a lottery seat at a magnet that might prove better than the home school. Or, if they had transportation resources available, they could opt out of CMS to use charter or private or religious or home schools.

Board members are predictably divided over home schools. Some board members generally support home schools; their parents are satisfied with their home school. Some board members are aghast at what earlier boards have done; their parents are outraged by their terrible choices. But to see the issue so simply is unfair to the board:

At least seven board members over the three meetings have expressed serious discomfort with the geographically-based home-school guarantee because it has created schools that board members know are not meeting the N.C. Constitution’s standard of providing every child access to a sound basic education. It’s fair to say that everybody knew in 2002 that linking assignment to address would create some rich schools and many poor ones. They knew that the schools full of underprepared children would need additional resources in people and materials. So there was in effect a negotiated settlement reached: Rich neighborhoods would get their nearby schools; and schools of concentrated poverty, wherever they were, would get high-flying teachers and additional materials.

In 2010, the board argued that good teaching, good leadership and above-average resources had more to do with learning than where a child was assigned.

The discomfort many board members feel today is in part because the board arguably can no longer deliver on either promise. No system to lure top principals and high-flying teachers to high-poverty schools has gone to scale and been sustained. And the recession has left the board without the money it assumed it would find to boost achievement at underperforming schools.

A staff member recently put it this way: The value of the home-school guarantee is entirely relative. Or as at-large boad member Ellis-Stewart put it May 26: Who wants a guarantee to a bad school?

Perhaps, as one curmudgeon suggested recently, board members will just throw up their hands this year and stonewall on assignment until Judge Howard Manning retires or dies. But even if they do, they know the system is unconscionable. They also know that in the meantime they are subject to being thrown in jail if Raleigh-based Judge Manning gets as outraged at inaction as some of the board members’ constituents already are.

Tying assignment to home schools ensures the achievement of one goal: guaranteeing that the racial and socioeconomic divisions of Mecklenburg’s housing patterns will be reflected in Mecklenburg’s schools. But that goal is arguably not a goal of a board of education. Perhaps the CMS Board of Education can pursue goals more directly tied to its prime educational goal: achieving academic excellence among all children.

Are home schools really first priority?

This issue begins with a single sentence in the current Guiding Principles: “Home Schools are the foundation of our academic instruction delivery model.” The school board of 2002 and again in 2010 expected the home schools to get top priority.

Only they didn’t deliver guiding principles to make that happen.

District 5 school board member Eric Davis, who with District 4 member Tom Tate in 2010 authored the current principles, clarifies: Magnets, he has said during meetings, actually are the board’s first priority because they are better funded and are held to higher achievement standards. While magnet parents paid the higher price during recession-era transportation cuts that have not been restored, the balance still favors magnets, he says. Who, for example, has a magnet fair to attract new students or sustain current students’ interest? It’s not a home schools fair.

On May 26, Supt. Ann Clark asked a telling question: By what method would you judge whether CMS was giving top priority to home schools?

What is diversity?

At-large member Tim Morgan said May 26 that District 6, which he used to represent, does not get any credit for its diversity when 40% of one of its schools are Asian. He acknowledges that the district and even that school has little socioeconomic diversity, but suggested that the board define what it means by diversity. District 1 member Rhonda Lennon suggested that if what board members want really is black-white diversity, that they just say so.

Some observers would not be surprised if the board’s general counsel doesn’t put an end to this discussion. But the issues raised are foundational to a quite practical inquiry:

Who is part of the “tipping point”?

Ellis-Stewart, quoted at the top of this article, thinks board members should identify the schools that they themselves would not recommend for their own family members. There could be many factors that go into such choices. But parents do make such choices. And often, as Eric Davis pointed out May 26, they often make their decisions “without ever darkening the door of the schoolhouse.”

In a society where the reputation of Asian students generally is of hard-working academic overachievers, would a 40%-Asian population discourage any group of non-Asian parents from attending? What about a 40% Latino school? Or a 40% poor school? Or a 40% black school?

One difference between the diversity discussion and the “tipping point” discussion is that the former is arguably none of the school board’s business. The second, however, is actionable: If a school reaches a tipping point and empties out, CMS has a failing school to reconstitute, or a lawsuit over inequitable use of taxpayer dollars. The board does need to pay attention.

What role for magnets?

Again, Eric Davis gave voice to this issue: Magnets, he said, are CMS’s best hope to blunt the rise of charter schools. Magnets offer niche academic programs; and niche groups of self-selected parents; and niche groups of more highly trained teachers to deal with the specialized curricula. Taking that logic further, should every school be a magnet? Magnet growth in public schools was in its heyday when federal grants were available for startup costs.

What are sibling guarantees for?

When one child gets in a magnet through a lottery or placement today, a younger child in the family gets to go when the time comes, so long as the first child is still in the program. Morgan asked: What about when a younger child gets in: Should an older child be allowed to transfer in? There was some discussion of how the guarantee was designed to keep families together.

Tate suggested that magnet programs were designed for individual students, and what should be controlling is whether the second child would benefit from the magnet’s program, not whether a single assignment would be more convenient for the family than two assignments.

What is enrollment capacity?

On April 29, District 6 member Paul Bailey suggested that before the discussion goes too far, that the board be given a more consistent way to know how many students can attend each of its schools. CMS has deployed more than 1,000 trailers to accommodate growth. But in previous iterations of what Bailey wants, there have been estimates that went far beyond classrooms time children, plus maximum zoning for trailers times children. The brick-and-mortar school often has a cafeteria maximum capacity, for example. Chances are, if Mecklenburg County keeps CMS on a lean capital budget as it has since the beginning of the recession, that enrollment will continue to outstrip whatever capacity is calculated.

That issue may be only tangentially related to assignment. But it has a whole lot of impact on the district’s reputation with parents.

– Steve Johnston