Fine Print - April 2010

Learned behavior
By G.D. Gearino

It is an article of faith in Wake County, where I live, that the Triangle’s economic vitality is due in no small measure to its progressive, nationally lauded school system. It naturally follows, then, that the recent election of a conservative-leaning school-board majority is a threat to that economic vitality — one so menacing that almost before the new board chairman had broken in his gavel, a group called Great Schools in Wake Coalition was formed to oppose the fresh majority’s revanchist drift. One of the coalition’s stated aims is to “examine how proposals of the new [board] might affect the economic growth of Wake County and our ability to attract new business.”

It’s certainly true that no economic good results from socio-political strife in a public school system. But the inverse of that fact — that economic growth flowers in areas where school boards are calm and the grades are good — strikes me as a shaky claim. And if I were so foolish as to take a swan dive into the particulars of the longstanding (and now endangered) Wake schools policy of busing students all over the county in the name of economic diversity, I would note that whatever industrial-recruitment benefit is gained from that progressive stance is likely balanced, and maybe even outweighed, by a hesitancy among corporate types to move to a place where their children, well, might be bused all over the county. But I don’t propose to adjudicate the wisdom of either the established diversity policy or the effort to overturn it. Instead, let’s ponder the school/business connection.

Wake County’s school system indeed is considered among the state’s finest. And it’s true that the Triangle has enjoyed a long period of economic prosperity, being awarded over the years the top spot on so many lists of the best places to [start a business, launch a career, etc.] that the local media long ago adopted a sardonic, yawn-we-made-another-list attitude every time a new ranking was reported. But the exact relationship between those two facts is elusive. It’s something akin to the connection between a smile and a seduction: The first seems to lead to the second, but there are way too many other factors to be sure. Besides, if Wake schools are better than most others in the state performancewise, couldn’t it be because the offspring of knowledge workers who’ve migrated to the Triangle boosted that performance? The relationship between the school system and business development might be, in fact, the mirror image of the one being promoted by school boosters.

Moreover, the North Carolina educational system that is used by some in Wake County as an example of one not to emulate — Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which in 2002 dismantled its own busing-for-diversity plan — can hardly be accused of sparking economic hardship in the Queen City. Unless the argument is that Charlotte could today be the size of, say, Tokyo were it not for the school system’s burdensome decision eight years ago, that whole line of thought collapses under the weight of Mecklenburg County’s relentless prosperity.

Need more? OK, ponder this: When Dell was searching for a location in North Carolina for a computer-assembly plant and when Google was likewise looking around the state for a new server-farm site, they eventually settled on Winston-Salem and Lenoir, respectively. They conspicuously bypassed the Triangle, which not only has a laudable school system but also happens to be the state’s technology center. Maybe this was because the school systems in those other places were even more progressively dedicated to economic diversity than was Wake’s system. (Don’t laugh. It’s possible.) Or maybe it simply was because there were many other good reasons to locate their business operations in those places.

Everything above is theory and supposition, though. Because it’s always best to hear directly from the parties involved, I posed a question to a spokesman for Garmin International Inc., the Kansas-based manufacturer of GPS devices that announced in February it was opening an office in the Triangle: Why, I asked, did the company choose Wake County? The spokesman cited two reasons — the concentration of wireless engineers in the area, and the availability of office space. What about the schools? I asked. He didn’t know a thing about Wake schools and the current woes. That issue wasn’t even on Garmin’s radar.

Again, none of this is a judgment on Wake’s practice of shuffling students around in the name of diversity. Running the state’s largest school system is tough work. When other complications are added into the administrative algebra — budget pressures, philosophical quibbles, electoral shifts, the specter of resegregation, etc. — that job becomes monstrously difficult. In light of that, it’s a mystery why pro-diversity partisans would want to pile responsibility for economic development on the school system’s shoulders. Consider this a public service, then. We can take that argument off the table.