I may or may not have wasted an hour yesterday morning. That's because the magnet school I toured may or may not be there in six months. The building will be there -- goodness knows Wake County needs all the school buildings it has -- but the school, the program, the teachers, the students who make up that building today might be gone. Or not.
As a parent of a rising kindergartner, that's what's making me crazy these days -- the not knowing whether the incoming school board will make little tweaks or sweeping changes to my public school district.
In their quest to be responsive to parents, the newest four members of the Wake County Board of Education -- who will be sworn in on Dec. 1 -- campaigned on promises of a return to "neighborhood schools" and an end to "busing for diversity." I'm not exactly sure what people mean when they use those heavily-loaded phrases, but I do know that a strict neighborhood plan would eliminate or at least severely handicap Wake County's national-award-winning magnet program.
The Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) lists three objectives for its magnet program:
Reduce high concentrations of poverty and support diverse populations
Maximize use of school facilities
Provide expanded educational opportunities
The first bullet point there got a lot of attention during the campaign because "diverse populations" got shortened to "busing" -- and no one likes "busing," even though it's not nearly that simple. The third bullet point is a big part of what draws most parents -- including me -- to consider these schools for our children. Imagining Junius learning about music, art, science, technology, language, leadership and media in elementary school sounds wonderful -- especially when I don't have to pay tuition for him to get it.
But that middle bullet point is one that gets lost in the rhetoric -- and it's one that every taxpayer in this county should care about, regardless of whether or not they have kids in the public schools. Employing a magnet program -- one that lures families from the crowded suburbs into downtown schools or schools in "less desirable neighborhoods" (how's that for a fully-loaded phrase?) -- is a fiscally responsible way to run a district as large as Wake County.
Without the magnet offerings, Wake County would likely return to the challenges seen here in the early 80s before the program began -- the same challenges now facing Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where downtown schools face under-enrollment and suburban schools are bursting at the seams. In a district of nearly 140,000 students that continues to grow by at least 4,000 students a year, despite the recessions, Wake County simply cannot afford to have empty seats.
Unlike Clay Aiken, I'm not planning on calling the new board members "selfish idiots." I'll reserve that judgement until they've had the chance to quit campaigning and start governing. I'm truly hoping that they're not idiots at all -- and that once they get into the substance of the issues facing our schools, they'll realize it's not nearly as simple as they thought.
Personally, I want the new school board members to care about the magnet program because it's been successful for the students in those schools. I want them to hear the voices of the parents of those students, even if those parents don't live in the board members' districts. I want them to find ways to provide the best education possible to all 140,000 kids.
But I know that money -- not student achievement or parent satisfaction -- is the real bottom line. And in tight economic times, I hope the new school board will remember their fiscal responsibility to use the existing facilities in the most efficient way possible -- and that includes maintaining a healthy magnet program in Wake County.