Bulls in the china shop

By: - September 17, 2010 2:40 pm

The Wake School Board majority continues to leave a trail of destruction

In urging caution in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell once famously counseled President Bush to remember the “Pottery Barn Rule”: “You break it, you own it.” Bush, of course, ultimately ignored the warning and, as the cost and casualty figures make painfully clear, Powell’s forecast came true in spades.

It’s too bad that someone didn’t remind the narrow Wake County School Board majority of Powell’s wisdom last fall when they began their ideologically driven crusade. Maybe, just maybe, one or more of the members of the new group would have taken a step back and seriously pondered the potential ramifications of  what it was that they were about to unleash.

Crash, boom, bang!

Now, nearly a year after their election, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the majority really is like a group of bulls in a china shop – flailing and stomping wildly in several directions at once with little to show for their actions but trail of destruction.

Indeed, if you think about it, the china shop analogy really is an apt one in the case of the Wake County Public Schools. When the new majority took power last fall, the system was far from perfect. Like a venerable ceramics store, it was, at the same time, chock full of priceless items and a little weathered around the edges. Many of the “store’s” featured showcases shined brightly. A huge influx of new “inventory” in recent years, however, had caused some corners of the shop to become neglected and in need of attention. All in all, however, the “shop” was a success – admired around the country and a popular point of pride with the vast majority of “customers” in large and booming county.    

By any fair estimation, such a situation called for a deliberate and ever-so-careful modernization plan – an update that would preserve and enhance the “store’s” best features and intentionally upgrade its shortcomings. For Wake County, this would have meant carefully updating and upgrading student assignment plans that had begun to fall short of their longstanding commitment to promoting maximum county-wide student achievement.

Unfortunately, of course, the new “shop managers” didn’t see it that way. Their solution to what ailed the “business” was to, essentially, smash every showcase and start over. And as Colin Powell might have been able to tell them, putting the china shop back together is not as easy as it seems – especially if the new store managers have essentially zero experience in the business.

Alienating the customers

We are now beginning the see the “fruits” of the Board majority’s destructive approach. Cost overruns, a constantly shifting business plan and a general sense of rudderless confusion have become the dominant narratives. Not only are the system’s original and most loyal core “customers” up in arms, but so too are many of the majority’s original supporters. Recent confusion surrounding the majority’s nearly incomprehensible plan to establish “attendance zones” has helped spark new protests from many of the same disgruntled folks who originally voted for the new majority.

This week, angry parents in Cary circulated a flyer in which they decried the majority’s proposal to include their neighborhood in a so-called “central region.” Implicit in the thinly veiled complaint was the worry that their children would be lumped in with “those children” – i.e. kids from disproportionately low-income and minority neighborhoods. To quote the flyer:

“What this means if you have children in the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS), is that they will get assigned to “Central” region schools. As an example, take Athens Drive High School, which in the proposed plan, will be a “Central” region school. ADHS, by most all accounts, is currently considered a quality school with an excellent learning environment. However, under the proposed assignments the ADHS the [sic] student population mix and learning environment would be dramatically altered.

Even if you do not have children in WCPSS, the value of your property could be substantially impacted. Quality of schools is a key component in making house buying decisions. Ask yourself how potential buyers might view properties assigned to the “Central” region?”   

And so the can of worms starts to open. What had been an imperfect but still delicately-crafted balance in which everyone had a stake (and in which a remarkable 94.5% of parents were satisfied with their school assignment), is being cast aside in favor a system that will encourage a county-wide, dog-eat-dog, free-for-all – a donnybrook of selfishness in which every household will feel compelled to fight tooth and nail to grab the best possible deal for itself.

A partial solution or too little, too late?

Yesterday, in an apparent attempt to lasso the bulls and limit additional damage, Raleigh’s business community came forward to offer a plan for saving the school system from complete and chaotic meltdown.

At a press conference, spokespeople for the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the Wake Education Partnership announced that they had hired national school assignment expert Michael Alves to develop a “controlled choice” plan for Wake County that could be offered to the Board majority by late fall. Their apparent hope is to advance a plan that retains some semblance of diversity in the schools – at least with respect to the achievement levels of the children attending various schools – and that thereby spares the county from a destructive partitioning that seems all but inevitable under the majority’s “plan.”

Whether the business community’s effort will prove successful is anybody’s guess. Board majority member Debra Goldman attended the event and made comments that seemed to offer some cause for hope. Goldman, however, has done that before – giving hints of unease with the actions of Ron Margiotta and John Tedesco — only to be reeled back into the fold when push came to shove.

The real agenda

Seldom spoken of in all of this hectic debate, of course, is the strong likelihood that many of the powerful forces whipping and prodding the Board bulls – i.e. the far right think tanks, conservative activist Art Pope and private school mogul Bob Luddy (whose expanding Thales Academy board includes Margiotta) – would be just as happy if the china shop were never repaired. Their vision of modern education is a privatized, “voucherized,” and ultimately, Balkanized structure that bears no resemblance at all to the traditional American model in which public schools are one of the central institutions helping to bind and unite a community.

In this extreme, “markets uber alles” worldview, schools are little more than education factories competing for “consumers” who seek to compete and get ahead. Meanwhile, public structures like county-wide school systems that knit together a community are seen as worthless antiques that deserve to be smashed on the sidewalk.

In the months ahead, Wake County’s business community may succeed in helping to rein in the narrow Board majority before it completely trashes the Wake County Public School System.

Let’s hope so. If they break it, everyone in Wake County will “own” the wreckage.   


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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.