The devil is in the details.
That ought to be the tagline for the Wake County student assignment plan.
The latest twist in the on-going (and seemingly impossible) search for the perfect plan involved returning a base school assignment tied to each address in the county. Until last year, every house in the district was automatically assigned to a specific school -- if you didn't apply to a magnet school or some other option, then that's where your kids went to school (we'll call this Old Plan).
For this year's plan (we'll call it New Plan 1.0), the school board did away with base assignments, having every family rank their preferred schools from a list of options (based on your address) and then placing them depending on certain criteria and available seats. Doing so gave the district more flexibility in filling available seats and avoiding wildly overcrowded schools.
Real estate agents (as a group) and some families protested this element of the new plan, saying it was unreasonable for newcomers to the area to be able to buy a house without knowing where their kids would go to school. The new approach also meant that, depending on a variety of factors, it was possible to live across the street from a school and not get a seat there. You can see why people were frustrated.
So this summer the school board instructed district staff to revise New Plan 1.0 to reinstate base assignments tied to addresses. And regardless of the plan, they've promised to allow anyone already in a school to stay at that school until they graduate. Sounds like they're being responsive to legitimate complaints and frustrations, right?
Enter those devilish details.
Because when the district released the base assignment plan (we'll call it New Plan 2.0) on Friday, it turns out that they didn't simply go back to the school assignments that people remembered from Old Plan. In some cases, they got new assignments that pulled them away from where they were used to attending. And that left lots of people with a big surprise (translation: trauma) when they plugged their address into the online school finder Friday night..
So while I'm quoting cliches, I'll add You Can't Win for Losing as the clear motto for the Wake County Public School System. Seems that every time they try to adjust for one problem, they create six new ones in its place.
This scenario may not have played out in every neighborhood, but I don't think mine is the only one. With New Plan 2.0, here's what I think the school district was trying to do:
a. Keep a whole neighborhood together instead of splitting between two elementary schools.
b. Keep people at schools close to home, even if not at their absolute closest school.
c. Connect elementary schools to middle schools on the same calendar.
d. Relieve overcrowding at one school to fill empty seats at another school.
These all sound like good things, except that (ah, there's those details again) their solution was to assign most of my neighbors to:
a. A different school than the one they (or their address) have attended for many, many years.
b. An elementary school that is less than 2 miles away but would require riding the bus or at least crossing a very busy 6-lane street with no crossing guard instead of the school that they can currently walk less than a mile to.
c. A middle school that is 9 miles away and on a year-round calendar even though there's a traditional calendar middle school in our walk zone.
Yeah. They're not happy.
There are bigger policy issues at stake here -- how do we ensure that every school is a great school, how do we support teachers and principals to do great work, how do we help students get the attention and services they need, how do we ensure that no school is overwhelmed by poverty? But no one can think about those big questions because all they hear is more change, more uncertainty, more arbitrary decisions.
Oh, and tomorrow it sounds like the school board might fire the superintendent. Because nothing helps calm nervous or angry parents like a sudden leadership vacuum.