My Convertible Life

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Southern Schools, Northern Leaders

"Does it bother you to see a man from New Jersey come in and try to take over your schools?"

My friend and neighbor, who herself is from New Jersey (although she's lived in Raleigh for 15 years), posed this question to me recently about Wake County Board of Education Chairman Ron Margiotta.

My response: "Yes, in fact, it does."

Actually, it doesn't matter to me that Margiotta wasn't born in North Carolina -- I have several friends in the area who hail from the northeast and I love them just as much as my locally-born friends. (Wait, now do I sound like John Tedesco, another New Jersey transplant on the board who recently rationalized that he couldn't possibly be making bad decisions about our school district's diversity policy because, he says, he had a "few ex-girlfriends who were African American and Latino women"? Oy vey.)

What bothers me about Margiotta, Tedesco and others who have pushed to eliminate any consideration of maintaining socioeconomic balance in our schools is their desire to make schools in Wake County look like their vision of schools in the northeast. Unfortunately, I fear their memories of home are clouded by nostalgia and don't acknowledge the reality of our county. My friend who posed the question to me remembers that the schools in her New Jersey district were great -- but the ones in the district next door, notsomuch. The house she grew up in was worth significantly more, she says, than the same house in a different district simply because of the quality of the schools. The parents of children in that other district didn't have the option to choose a different school, unless they could afford to move. (Her family also paid dramatically more in property taxes than we do here, but that's another debate altogether.)

Ironically, there's a district in Montclair, NJ, that's modeling its diversity policy after Wake County's former plan. Their plan uses both magnet schools and assignments that work to create school enrollments that mirror the demographics of the broader community to ensure a successful balance in each school.

In all the hullabaloo about so-called neighborhood schools, it seems that our Yankee-transplants are forgetting (or choosing to ignore) that the success of Wake County's school system was a critical factor in what made our community such a successful and desirable location for said transplants. And while the diversity policy wasn't THE reason for our success -- effective teachers, strong leaders, regular parental involvement and many other factors are certainly at play -- no one has shown the first piece of evidence to suggest that eliminating the policy will raise student achievement for anyone in the district.

I'm happy for transplants to serve in elected positions in Wake County and across North Carolina. I just wish that they'd take the time to study what works, research the gaps, talk with citizens, listen to experts and make informed decisions. And I want to believe that they're not seizing an opportunity for political gain or living in a fantasy that will ultimately harm our students and the quality of life in our community.

For another view on this topic, see Barry Saunders' column from Tuesday's N&O. He's funnier than I am and definitely worth reading.

Photo of transplanted school board members Debra Goldman, Chris Malone, John Tedesco and Ron Margiotta by N&O photographer Ted Richardson.

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