In case you missed the latest in the agony and the ecstasy that is the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS), here are this week's headlines for the leading educational stories in the local paper, the News and Observer:
3/12/11 (School Board Member) Goldman's child sent to out-of-zone school, soon followed by
3/15/11 (WCPSS Superintendent) Tata to look into transfer
(Short version: Board Member Goldman's middle school daughter was one of only 15 students out of the 140,000+ students in the system to receive a little-used administrative procedure to transfer out of her usual school choices that requires merely an oral request, rather than the more extensive paperwork necessary for traditional transfer requests.)
3/15/11 Play nice, audit tells board
(Short version: An outside audit conducted by Superintendent Tata's educational training organization concluded that the WCPSS school board's public fighting, disrespect for fellow board members, and even name calling was damaging the school system's image with the public and overshadowing all the good work the schools were doing. You can read the entire 52 page audit on the WPCSS website using this link.)
The biggie, however, was this one:
3/17/11 Schools lost Wake's trust, report says
(Short version: The WCPSS accrediting agency, AdvancED, is giving the school board one year to clean up its act or risk the system losing accreditation. AdvancED accused the Republican majority of alienating much of its constituency by giving inadequate notice of major action and ignoring data when making major policy decisions. Because the system's governance had created "a climate of uncertainty, suspicion, and mistrust throughout the community," AdvancED gave WCPSS its second toughest rating, Accreditation Warning," which means that it is a serious problem that must be addressed within a year in order to remain accredited. You can read the entire 15 page report on the WCPSS website using this link.)
That story broke, by the way, two days after Superintendent Tata presented his budget cuts for the 2011-2012 school year, and on the same day as Tata was meeting with officials of the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which is investigating WCPSS' elimination of its diversity policy.
My two-bit response to all this good news is:
After a year in which school board meetings have become a zoo, with many citizens regularly protesting and even getting arrested, while the board members insult each other in front of the public, AND the NAACP is bringing lawsuits and administrative actions against the system, AND our school system has been publicly criticized from such national figures as the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former president Bill Clinton, and even Steven Colbert, AND just plain old residents such as myself are writing blog posts like Wake School Board Majority Should Be Ashamed....yes, I think it is reasonable to say that there are some serious governance issues here.
However, how are the Republicans responding to these critiques? Well, good old Apex Representative and NC House Majority Leader Paul Stam (sponsor of the bill to give tax credits to families who pull their children out of school in order to send them to private school or homeschools, which I wrote about in this blog post) is one of several Republicans who have introduced a bill to effectively bypass the well-established tradition among ALL of American education of outside accreditation, and instead create a state-run accrediting agency. The bill would also PROHIBIT any North Carolina higher education institutions (colleges, universities, or community colleges) from considering whether or not a candidate's high school is accredited when making admission, scholarship, or loan decisions. (You can read the full text of the bill, HR 342: High School Accreditation, through this link.)
I'm sorry, but I think this is the same "heads in the sand" thinking that I criticized the WCPSS board in my post Why Wake County Board Should Continue Accreditation with AdvancED. I know it sounds naive to say this, but if there is anything that should be above politics, it should be our children's future. A community will come to pieces if it can't trust the people responsible for their children's education. That is the point of OUTSIDE, NON-POLITICAL, UNBIASED accreditation agencies like AdvancED. They aren't Republicans, pushing more charter schools and lower budgets, etc., and they aren't Democrats, pushing more early intervention and social programs for disadvantage populations, etc. They come in without an agenda, and say, Are the policies fair? Are children being treated equally? Are people--teachers, administrators, support staff, and even BOARD MEMBERS--do their jobs right at the level of quality that the public deserves to expect? They also have a regional and national perspective, and can comment on how a system is doing vis-a-vis their peers in the state, area, and country.
A state agency will be immediately suspect of bias. Even if it can avoid a partisan bias, which seems difficult, given the increasing involvement of the NC legislature in educational issues, it will certainly seem to have a bias to continue accreditation of NC schools to maintain the state's reputation. I mean, isn't that why it is being created? What purpose would it serve but to provide NC schools with some alternative accreditation if AdvancED pulls their, as they are threatening to do in Wake and Burke county (coincidentally enough, most, if not all, of the co-sponsors of the bill come from those two counties).
Also, this view point is very provincial. Outside this state, college specify requirements of accreditation from regional accrediting organizations, so it would not help with the thousands of NC graduates who want to attend higher ed institutions outside of North Carolina. However, it would probably diminish the national reputation of North Carolina colleges and universities, not to mention setting a bad precedent of the legislature messing around in the UNC admissions policies. ( And I thought the Republicans were supposed to be the party of less government interference....)
Wake County can not continue to ignore the big rifts in our community over school issues. But things seem to be getting better since Superintendent Tata came on board. The Board has been acting more professionally. They actually managed to go on a weekend retreat and come back with something constructive. The WCPSS has been open about these critical reports and have posted them on their websites. I think the general mood is hopeful that some healing and compromises can take place. However, that is only possible if people feel that they have been listened to and respected, even if there are disagreements and ultimately their positions don't win. And it only works if people feel like they can trust their school system.
In my opinion, HR 342 would only make things worse, not better.