Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Can a Stanford Educator Explain the Wake County School Board?

I ran into a book today that gave me a whole new theory in terms of explaining the recent tumult in the Wake County School Board.  As inhabitants of the Raleigh, NC-area Wake County know, last year four new school board members were voted in and claimed they had a mandate to dismantle the old system, in which students were bussed throughout the country to provide economic diversity among all the schools rather than creating a system of poor schools and rich schools, in favor of a neighborhood-based system.  They aligned with one previous school board member with similar inclinations, and gained a 5/4 majority on votes relating to this issue.  That previous board member was chosen to chair the board, and the majority was seen as "steamrolling" their position in vote after vote, despite the concerns being raised by the community.  Board meetings were turning into circuses, with protesters, petition, police, and prison incarceration becoming common occurences.

Then, last week, suddenly things shifted.  The board member from Cary (where I live), claiming that she was being shut out of the decision making and was increasingly uncomfortable about the direction the new school assignment plan being designed by a closed board committee was going, swung her vote to the minority and shut down work on the current board plan.  So now the whole thing has to go back to the drawing board, as they say.

It has been a nasty time, with ugly comments and insulting insinuations being flung by both sides.  And now nobody knows what is going to happen (although those aligned with the formerly-minority side are happy with that right now).

But the book I encountered today put it all into a new perspective for me.  David F. Larabee, a Professor of Education at Stanford University and long-time observer and writer on educational policy, has just released his latest book entitled Someone Has to Fail:  The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling.  Once again, I haven't actually read the book, other than sections through Google Preview and from reviews and comments from the author, etc.   So I really can't speak to the entire contents of the book.  However, one concept I picked up from what I have read has helped me reframe this entire conflict.

Larabee argues that there are two major forces that drive changes in public school:  the Reformers, those who want to use the public schools for all sort of beneficial public purposes ("melting pot" integration of aliens, increasing opportunities for the poor, producing a more competitive economic workforce, and so on), and the Consumers, those who are sending their children to school for a better life (in Larabee's opinion, it seems, often by providing them a competitive edge over other children).  Sometimes the interests of Consumers and Reformers overlap, as when education provides poor children with a mean to escape the poverty of their parents.  Sometimes Consumers can co-exist with Reformers; they don't necessarily actively support the reform movement, but it doesn't cause them any issues so they are fine with it.  But Larabee seems to indicate that if there is a run-in between the Reformers and the Consumers, the Consumers win every time.

I think that is exactly what we are seeing here in Wake County.  For the past ten years, despite the issues and problems, I don't think most parents (the Consumers) were opposed to the Reformers plan for economic diversity.  Unfortunately, the school system blew the implementation of that system through its inadequate planning.   The school system was reassigning students on a continuing basis, so that students were going to three different elementary schools from K-5, families had siblings on completely different schedules (traditional, year round, different tracks, etc.), and neighbors were attending completely different schools.  In short, the costs of the Reformers' plans were becoming too high for the Consumers.  And so, they rebelled....and voted in a new slate of school board members.

But here is the crux of the latest problem....

The people on the school board who were designing the new system, although voted in by Consumers to solve their Consumer problems, were, in fact, Reformers.  They were opposed to the existing Reformers, so perhaps they should be called the Anti-Reformers, but they were still Reformers.  One, in particular, is not even married and doesn't have any children.  This is not to say that they don't care deeply and aren't trying to do the right thing and have no right to have input to the school system--after all, since I homeschool, I'm not a consumer either--but it is to say that they aren't coming from it from a Consumer point of view.

So thing fell apart, I think, when word started getting out that this new set of Reformers/Anti-Reformers were considering creating regional zones and not assigning students to a base school.  Now, who knows what they were doing, since it was closed even to other board members, and maybe it made sense in their new Reformer scheme.  But that was anathema to all the Consumers who were tired of all the confusion after years of redistricting for economic diversity and who were just trying to vote in a system where they would know where their children would go to school for the foreseeable future.

So it came down to the new Cary board member, who was voted in on the new Reformers platform but who was, in reality, a Consumer (she has two children in the public schools, I believe).  And beyond being a Consumer herself, she represents the community with the most vocal and active Consumer population, just given Cary's relatively high income, educational achievement of parents, and number of one-income families where spouses have the time and expertise to advocating for their children in the school system.  She---and by extention, the Consumers--wasn't being listened to, and she pulled the plug.

And that, according to Laramee, is the fate of any Reformers scheme when it runs head-to-head with Consumer opposition.

Or, at least, that's what I think Laramee says.  Regardless, it makes a lot of sense to me to explain the recent events from that framework.

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. This makes a lot of sense to me! And reminds me of the Monday talk with Madison about the balance between "making and taking" in math. Break the balance at your peril! :-)