Good news from Raleigh

The big education-related story in this month’s elections came from Ohio, where voters repealed a law that limited collective bargaining rights for public-sector employees, including teachers.

But for this blog, the most significant election news was Kevin Hill’s victory in a run-off election for a school board seat in in Wake County, N.C. The outcome gave Democrats a sweep of this year’s board races and a 5-4 edge on the school board in Raleigh.

And it ousted the Republican majority that had dismantled Wake County’s brave and innovative socio-economic diversity policy.

It’s not yet clear whether the new board majority will bring back the old policy, which assigned students to schools in a way that avoided concentrating large numbers of poor children in the same buildings. Wake County school administrators are moving ahead with a neighborhood and “choice-based” student assignment plan adopted by the former Republican majority. Democrats say they’ll review the plan.

However that plays out, this is an outcome worth noting.

In an era when education “reform” is based on the idea that competition must drive improvement – that parents are out to get the best possible education for their own kids, whether through charter schools, magnet schools or vouchers, and never mind everyone else – the Wake County results can be interpreted as endorsing education as a community responsibility.

Fifty-seven years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional. But as UCLA’s Gary Orfield and his Civil Rights Project colleagues have shown, schools have become more segregated in the past generation, by race and especially by social class.

It may be that poverty will always be with us. But socio-economic segregation of schools is a result of choices – decisions by people of means to abandon the cities and public education, sure, but also political decisions about student-assignment plans and the boundaries of school districts and attendance areas. (Example: Bloomington, Ind., where one elementary school has 90 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches, while an elementary school with an adjacent attendance area has fewer than 20 percent of its students qualifying for lunch subsidies).

The voters of Raleigh have shown it’s possible to choose a different path.

Meanwhile, in Denver

Emily Sirota lost her race for a seat on the Denver school board – badly. She had attracted national media attention for her challenge to a “pro-reform” candidate backed by Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children.

Election season news from here and there

What have things come to when national political organizations and are pouring time, attention and tens of thousands of dollars into local school board races?

That’s what’s happening in Denver, where Oregon-based Stand for Children and New York-based Democrats for Education Reform are backing “pro-reform” board candidates and an opponent is getting positive media coverage from progressive sites like The Nation, Slate and The Daily Kos.

Much of the attention has focused on the southeast Denver race between Anne Rowe and Emily Sirota. SFC and DFER are supporting Rowe. But Sirota, who is married to the progressive blogger, author and radio personality David Sirota, isn’t exactly lacking for influential friends.

Emily Sirota studied political science at Indiana University and then worked in Washington, D.C., for Sen. Evan Bayh and Rep. Baron Hill, a pair of moderate Hoosier Democrats, where she met her husband. She later worked for Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer before moving to Denver.

Colorado has been out in front of the current wave of education reform, with the state or some districts adopting merit pay, test-based teacher evaluations and vouchers ahead of the rest of the country. If Sirota, who’s being seriously outspent in the campaign, could pull off an upset, it would send an interesting message.

Wake County, N.C.

The Wake County school system in Raleigh, N.C., adopted a remarkable student-assignment plan in the 1990s that sought to avoid segregating rich and poor students in different schools. The goal was to have no more than 40 percent of students in any school qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches.

The system won national acclaim, but some people didn’t like busing students to achieve socio-economic balance. A couple of years ago, a Republican majority took over the school board, killed off the diversity plan, and replaced it with a plan that relies on neighborhood and magnet schools – prompting a federal civil-rights investigation and criticism by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Now the pendulum has swung again. Democrats picked up four seats in school board elections this month. Control of the nine-member board will be decided in a run-off election on Nov. 8.

Indianapolis

While Indiana seems to have dropped the ball on early childhood education, Melina Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for mayor of Indianapolis, is trying to do something. She proposes using money from the sale of the city water system to develop and support pre-kindergarten programs.

Matthew Tully of the Indianapolis Star explained her proposal in a recent column.

Some might argue that the mayor of Indianapolis has no statutory role in education – except for authorizing charter schools – so Kennedy should keep out of it. But as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Jim Heckman keeps pointing out, there’s no more powerful investment that than supporting high-quality early education. On this issue, Kennedy is doing the right thing.

It doesn’t really seem like the education issue has caught on in the mayoral race, however. There’s a lot of awareness of the challenges facing Indianapolis Public Schools. But it’s one of only 11 school districts in the city. Indianapolis and Marion County adopted Unigov in 1970, but they kept their Balkanized public school systems. When residents of non-IPS districts go to the polls Nov. 8 to vote for mayor, most of them probably won’t be thinking much about education.