By Cash Michaels
It’s the change that no one who embraced the heralded and productive socioeconomic student diversity policy ever wanted to see - Wake County Public Schools, moving as far away as possible from the old mission - making sure that no child was trapped in an unhealthy school.
The changes have steadily come in a blur after a period where it seemed the Republican majority on the contentious school board couldn’t do anything right. And even though the US Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has yet to weigh-in on the NCNAACP’s federal complaint alleging racial bias against the Wake School Board, it is clear that the board isn’t waiting around for the results - good or bad.
This week, rookie Wake Supt. Anthony Tata unveiled a “community-based” school choice student assignment plan that allows parents the ability, he says, to choose their child’s school from a host of options. Based on online testing with parents, Tata says, proximity to the closest school seems to be the clear priority. However, for Southeast Raleigh and eastern Wake parents, allowances will have to be made for their children to attend schools that will not result in high poverty.
Tata hopes the board will sign off on the plan by the fall so that implementation can begin for the 2012-2013 school year.
Can that happen, especially, as is known to happen with school choice plans elsewhere, there will schools that are not chosen because they will not be high performing?
Southeast Raleigh District 4 school board representative Keith Sutton, who favored a more addressed-based approach to student assignment similar to the prior student assignment plan, isn’t so sure if the plan doesn’t help to enhance student achievement, and ensure against a proliferation of high poverty schools.
The question is, is this choice plan, and the many other changes that the board, and Tata, are ushering in, good or bad for African-American students?
Add to that Tata’s assertion this week that contrary to internal administration reports, Wake’s racial achievement gap since 2006 has not narrowed at all. Tata contends that a Harvard University study, commissioned by the Broad Academy - the group that trained Tata less than five years ago to become a superintendent after he left his US Army career - shows that, based on raw data, while all of Wake’s student subgroups have incrementally improved academically over the past four years, the wide gap between black and white students persists.
What Tata intends to do about this, and how his student assignment plan plays into his remedy, remains to be seen.
With the October Wake School Board elections looming, and the prospect that the Republican majority might add to their numbers on the nine-member panel, the only way to put the brakes on what seems to be a clear direction towards possibly leaving low-achieving students behind is the elections.
All four Democratic seats, including that of Sutton’s, are up for grabs, along with Republican Chairman Ron Margiotta’s, who formally announced for re-election this week.
No Democrat has announced a challenge to Margiotta in his District 8 Apex area thus far, and two of the Democratic incumbents - District 5’s Dr. Anne McLaurin and District 6’s Dr. Carolyn Morrison - have announced that they are no running this fall, leaving their seats wide open for well-funded Republican candidates to pickup.
Unless Democrats are able to sweep all five open seats in October, school board Republicans will have more than enough of a majority margin to further change the school system.
Tuesday night, Chairman Margiotta was reelected chair by his majority, but can only serve as such until this December when the new board is sworn in. In a long, drawn out process, Margiotta’s chief lieutenant on the board, District 2’s John Tedesco, was voted in as board vice chair, replacing fellow Republican Debra Goldman, who fell out of favor with her fellow GOP’ers when she supported the Democratic minority last fall on several measures.
Tedesco, who has emerged in the almost two years that the Republicans have held the majority as their most prominent spokesperson, has also finally found a job.
Last week the conservative District 2 Garner representative announced that he has been hired as president and chief executive of the nonprofit North Carolina Center for Education Reform, which will be headquartered in Raleigh.
The purpose of the organization, Tedesco says, is to reform public education across the state. But beyond Tedesco, there is very little information about who or what he’s supposed to be leading.
But sources researching what little is known, say there are definite right-wing connections, connections that come as no surprise given not only Tedesco’s Republican politics, but penchant to travel statewide promoting the ultra right-wing Tea Party.
According to sources, the attorney listed on the incorporation papers for Tedesco’s new group is Austin M. Chestnut, a lawyer with the Shanahan Law Group, the law firm run by Republican Wake School Board special counsel, attorney Kieran Shanahan. That firm was recently commissioned by Chairman Margiotta to redraw the redistricting map.
In his bio, among other things, Chestnut once served as “an officer with the Campbell University Chapter of the Federalist Society.”
According to it’s own website, “…the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies is a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order. It is founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.”
Both Chestnut and Shanahan are closely affiliated with the “Liberty and Law Institute,” a “non-profit, non-partisan educational dedicated to teaching successive generations of young Americans the text of our Founding Documents — the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution…”
The conservative connections to Tedesco’s new organization don’t stop there.
Even the group’s website designer is Stephen Cannon of “Right Foot Forward,” “Cannon Vending” and “Beyond Political Consulting.”
A visit to Beyond Political Consulting’s website reveals a long list of Republican clients throughout the South which include the North Carolina Republican Party, a number of Republican and Tea party candidates for Congress, and Heather Losurdo, Republican Wake School Board candidate for District 3, currently Democratic incumbent Kevin Hill’s seat.
In fact, one of BPC’s managing partners is Betsy McCorkle, the campaign treasurer for Losurdo’s school board bid.
Tedesco has told local media that there are no major donors thus far, so funding is coming from “small level contributions from local donors and supporters.” He vows that there is no conflict of interest with his position on the school board, and says that a list of the center’s board of directors thus far will be on its website by this Friday.
Meanwhile NCNAACP Pres. Rev. William Barber, who has been lamenting the Wake School Board’s changes and right-wing political influence, has agreed to meet with Supt. Tata about his student assignment recommendations. But Tata has also challenged Barber to prove that the NAACP has worked to recruit black teachers and principals, and has helped with school system community outreach.
Ironically, and apparently Supt. Tata is unaware, but the NCNAACP was rebuffed several times by Chairman Margiotta when it offered over a year ago to work with the conservative majority when it took over, discuss key issues, and fashion a comprise to the Republican-led board’s goal of neighborhood schools.
The educational efforts of the NAACP, the NCNAACP’s parent organization, are well known, consisting of it ACT-SO program promoting student achievement; Sadie Bates national conference which was last held in Raleigh in December to assist teachers, principals and school officials nationally deal with barriers to education; and its legal battles nationally to ensure equal educational access for all students.
Here in North Carolina, NCNAACP has partnered groups like the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African-American Students and Great Schools in Wake Coalition, which have both sponsored community outreach with the school system.
Tata’s job, observers say, is not to worry about what the NCNAACP is, or is not doing, but making sure that his new student assignment plan doesn’t create more high poverty schools that the Wake School System can’t afford to adequately support.
UPDATE - ABC-11 Eyewitness News dug deeper into who is bankrolling Tedesco's new job
UPDATE - ABC-11 Eyewitness News dug deeper into who is bankrolling Tedesco's new job