Feature                                                       Pages 30-33


If the Playing Field Is Tilted,

Why Level It?

What the former district leader in Wake County, N.C., knows now about policy conflicts he didn’t know then


Knowing that a majority of citizens opposed a district merger, why would elected officials and school district leaders doggedly pursue the consolidation of the Raleigh City Schools and Wake County Schools in North Carolina? They did just that in 1975, when the Wake County Public School System was created against the will of the people.

Prior to the merger, which brought together about 50,000 students, a nonbinding public referendum had been defeated by a 2-1 margin.

However, a core group of business and community leaders were successful in convincing the local legislative delegation to introduce a bill in the state legislature enabling the merger. Both boards of education, the board of county commissioners and the state board of education subsequently approved the merger. The reasons cited at the time included greater operational efficiency, better use of existing building capacity, increased educational opportunity for all students and greater racial integration.

An Eye Opener
As a beginning teacher in the newly formed district, I did not fully grasp the ramifications of a merger. What I did see, however, was the conflict that followed that decision. During my 30-plus years in the Wake County Public Schools, as I moved from teacher to principal to superintendent, I experienced firsthand the effects of explosive growth, as the district increased by nearly 100,000 students.

Merging districts, rather than reducing political conflict over public education, seemed to amplify it. Property tax increases were used to build more schools and facilities, fueling a growing antigovernment sentiment. The district frequently reassigned students to reduce overcrowding, pitting parental choice against efficient facility use.

Meanwhile, color gave way to class, as the goal of greater racial integration transformed into socioeconomic diversity. Population growth increased steadily in the years after the merger until, by the mid-2000s, the Wake County system was expanding by 6,000 students each year. In addition to in-migration, essentially two classes of kindergartners were born in the county every day.

I witnessed and experienced the impact of student assignment on students, families, the community, the district and the school board. I also saw that, while student assignment plans were developed primarily to address building capacity, socioeconomic diversity began to garner greater attention.

When I became superintendent in 2006, I realized two key things. First, future student assignment plans would become the principal policy tool for leveling the playing field. And second, student assignment for socioeconomic diversity would come into conflict with competing policy goals and tools.

Few district policy decisions can match the emotion, passion, outcry and conflict generated by student assignment. One that comes very close is the decision to group students by ability or performance within the classroom for purposes of instruction. The questions of who goes to school with whom and why are volatile ones, regardless of whether it is the classroom or the school being considered. Having addressed both of these issues, the first as principal and the second as superintendent, I recognized immediately this was true. But it took a process of discovery for me to come to understand exactly why.

When controversial policy choices surface, it seems that everyone knows the answer. School board candidates and interest groups advocate for their “right” answer, often declaring the “right” answers of others to be “wrong.” When everyone knows the answer and everyone doesn’t agree, what does it mean, why does this occur and how should a superintendent respond?

Let’s proceed based on author James Thurber’s advice that it’s better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.

Three Questions
I believe every superintendent should ask three related questions when facing controversial policy choices:

No. 1: What are policy choices like these fundamentally about? For most political philosophers, the key purpose of any legitimate government is to help its citizens create the “good life.” The good life is a set of values that can be grouped into four big public values that represent the public good in any policy choice:

  • Liberty includes freedom, choice, opportunity, independence, individuality, privacy, personal responsibility and self-sufficiency.
  • Equality includes fairness, equity, justice, tolerance, diversity, equal treatment, equal opportunity, equal results and a level playing field.
  • Community includes safety, security, a sense of belonging to the people and places where we live and work, social and moral order, and quality of life.
  • Prosperity includes productivity, efficiency, growth, development, privatization, return on investment, standard of living, quantity of life and using market rules to make decisions.

These values frame all policy choices. While we agree these are the values of the good life, we disagree vigorously about which value should have priority in any given situation.

No. 2: Why do policy choices like these matter? Superintendents have an administrative role. But they also have a governance role. The governance role of the board and superintendent is to help create enough liberty, equality, community and prosperity for everyone through public education.

However, without a language and framework to discuss policy choices for leveling the playing field such as student assignment, boards and superintendents cannot have the crucial conversations needed to identify the good from among competing “right” answers. Without such a framework, we are as likely to harm a good thing as we are to create a good thing. In a democratic society, how we decide is as important as what we decide.

Making decisions for the public good means more than just choosing sides. As an individual, you may prefer one value to another. As a superintendent, you must recognize that policy choices always involve at least two public values and that no one value is always better than the others. So before your staff, board or community debates solutions, make sure everyone understands which values are involved. Stop and ask, “How does this choice make our community better, and how are we treating those values with which we disagree?”

No. 3: How can superintendents discern the public good from among so many competing “right” answers? Decisions on behalf of the public good must be technically feasible and psychologically acceptable. In other words, they must meet all applicable legal and administrative requirements. And they must also satisfy public values. Ask your board and staff members, “How much are we willing to give up of one value to get more of another?”

When faced with a difficult policy choice involving competing good things, encourage diverse and broad-based participation. Reach out to the organizations in your community that are most likely to represent the faces not seen and the voices not heard. Use small groups instead of large public hearings to help people discuss what these policy choices mean to them, why they prefer one over another, and learn to recognize the good in each policy choice.

Move from exploration and understanding to planning and action. Be clear about what has been done in the past, what has been useful, what was implemented, what wasn’t and why not, how this effort will improve on previous ones, what impact it will have on the community as a whole, and who else needs to be involved.

Model the “arts of liberty” (first raised by political scientist Benjamin R. Barber in a Harper’s Magazine article in 1993) that help preserve the public in public schools. Help your community understand that rights and responsibility are connected. Parents should expect the district to be accountable to them, but they also must recognize they have a responsibility to the district. Help them understand our diversity is a strength, that we cannot be different all by ourselves and that the power of difference makes us stronger as a community.

Understand that conflict is the essence of democracy and we should acknowledge conflict and seek common ground because we are each a part of a larger community. Understand that democracy, as John Dewey wrote, means “paying attention” and that if we don’t listen and ask questions, we cannot find any common ground.

A public values framework is essential for navigating the public policy process when we must address issues like student assignment. Superintendents need a tool to help their boards surface and express the values underlying the inevitable conflict inherent in such policy choices. This is not just desirable, it’s necessary. Otherwise, how can a superintendent and school board identify the choices that are good among all those that are right?

Why Leveling Matters
As Americans, we are caught in an ever-raging conflict among the values of the good life, particularly between equality and justice on one hand and the social and economic preferences of an individualistic society on the other.

One way a democratic society resolves this conflict is through institutions that amplify these values, such as the church, the school and the state. These institutions, including public schools, are likely to be more broad-minded than the communities in which they reside. We place in these institutions our ideals of how the world rightly ought to be. This is why Wake County leaders approved a merger of schools almost 40 years ago, even though a majority of citizens opposed it. And it is why the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic Brown decision.

Public schools matter in the quest to level the playing field precisely because they are public and therefore serve as repositories for our ideals. Yet the pull of choice and individual freedom is so strong that the quest for equality and diversity feels like a push to many Americans.

The governance challenge for school boards and administrators is to make it possible for citizens to feel the pull of diversity rather than the push. In doing this, superintendents play an important leadership role in helping transform everyday self-interest into French historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s notion of “self-interest, properly understood.”

If our democratic experiment is to survive, it will be because we teach our children, along with reading and math, that one of the moral obligations of living in a free society is willingly curbing our individual self-interest in order that we may aspire to and attain the virtues and ideals of a democratic society that makes personal freedom possible in the first place.

Del Burns, former superintendent in Wake County, N.C., is director of education services for GMK Associates in Raleigh, N.C. E-mail: dburns@gmka.com. Contributing to this article was Phil Boyle, president of Leading and Governing Associates in Carrboro, N.C. Burns and Boyle are co-authors of Preserving the Public in Public Schools (R&L Education, 2012).


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