EDITORIAL: A nuanced take on school districts

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There was a time when all school districts were local — cities and towns took care of their own, with public facilities ranging from one-room schoolhouses to more modern structures. Newcomers to North Carolina, and locals of a certain age, can be confounded by the size of our county-wide school districts and the choices they offer.

And when looking at cost and outcomes, it’s easy to argue that our current public education system has gotten too big.

That’s the sentiment behind the last act of the NC General Assembly before adjourning until May: a joint committee formed to explore breaking up some of the state’s largest school systems — Wake County in particular — and issue a report on May 1.

And as usual, it’s applying a solution from last century to a situation firmly entrenched in this one.

Guilford and Forsyth counties have good school systems — ranked 22 and 15 respectively on niche.com’s 2018 ranking of the state’s 100 school districts. Wake County, the core subject of this legislation, came in at No. 5.

Forsyth County has an entire department to deal with students with disabilities, as much to serve the students as to meet federal requirements for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Guilford County students speak almost a hundred different languages, with more than 5,000 students learning to speak English this year.

We have special-needs students on the low and high ends of the spectrum, charter schools pulling dollars away from budgets, early colleges and specialized high schools. How on earth is all of that supposed to be unbundled, and then repackaged in a way that will meet everybody’s needs in accordance with the state Constitution, which guarantees “a general and uniform system of free public schools… wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.”

The one-size-fits-all neighborhood school district is just not equipped to deal with the modern American plurality — unless it’s in a wealthy neighborhood, which is sort of the point.

We are forced to remember, too, our shameful history of segregation in North Carolina and acknowledge that a county-wide school administration is the mechanism that is able to enforce integration in schools unwilling to participate.

The answer to the problems in our schools is not in the rear-view mirror. It’s in the students that, by law, must be served in a fair and equal manner. That won’t be accomplished by sorting them into smaller piles.

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