CMS student assignment consultant no cause for alarm

The Observer editorial board

Alves tiwabu@newsobserver.com

Back in the late 1970s, tough-guy actor Robert Conrad starred in a television ad that showed him slugging a punching bag before pausing to stick an Eveready battery on his shoulder.

“I dare you to knock this off,” he said, glaring into the camera.

That seems to be the pugilistic mindset some advocates of neighborhood schools have adopted toward the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board over the consultants hired to help hammer out a new student assignment plan.

Most folks seemed happy earlier this month when the board rolled out guidelines for its student assignment effort. Those guiding principles walked the line between respecting neighborhood school attendance zones and trying to boost campus diversity in a city of segregated neighborhoods.

But the board’s decision Tuesday to hire a consultant known for crafting diversity-boosting “controlled choice” plans sent some of the more outspoken neighborhood school advocates to the barricades, waving signs with messages such as “I’m leaving to go to my charter school.” Other neighborhood school advocates weren’t as angry, but voiced concern nonetheless.

While parents are well-advised to keep a close eye on the school board, the consultant concerns feel premature. The new advisor, Alves Educational Consulting Group, does boast an extensive record of crafting controlled-choice plans letting families choose between a home school and a menu of other options. The catch? There’s not necessarily a guarantee of a neighborhood school seat.

Still, the board made its feelings about neighborhood (or home) schools clear in the guiding principles: “Every student will be assigned to a designated home school within proximity to where he/she lives.”

Add the fact that the principles also call for keeping entire neighborhoods assigned to the same school whenever possible, and it’s hard to see how a classic controlled choice plan fits into that matrix.

Michael Alves might be recognized as the “godfather of controlled choice,” but he knows that when he accepts his $135,000 fee, he’s working for the school board, not the other way around.

“The board is not saying ‘We want controlled choice,’” Alves told the editorial board Wednesday. “There may be elements of controlled choice that make sense, but … the board is not interested in massive reassignment.”

So, why pick his firm? Because it has extensive experience in trying to boost school diversity in a post-busing world. With local schools having resegregated to an extent few see as healthy for our community, we need that expertise to tease out as much diversity as is politically and demographically feasible within a neighborhood school framework.

Yes, the school board’s history with questionable school closings and a fumbled superintendent exit gives many in the community good cause to distrust it. Any creative curveballs in defining key terms such as “home school” or “proximity” will only exacerbate that problem.

But the board’s work on its guiding principles shows a willingness to listen to the community and adjust accordingly.

If the board continues to walk the delicate balance it has already struck, Alves’ background should be a minor footnote, not a massive fight.