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Dueling Districts in North Carolina Governor's Race?

Could the Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County school districts in North Carolina serve as touchstones when the state's gubernatorial candidates debate education? Eric Houck, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who has worked in both districts, thinks they might. There wasn't space in my story on gubernatorial contests to fully explore Houck's thesis, but I wanted to give it some sunlight and water at State EdWatch. (They are the two largest districts in North Carolina.)

Former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, who looks ready to lock up the GOP nomination in the May 8 primary based on polling, could be an appropriate representative for the Charlotte school system, according to Houck. The district was awarded the 2011 Broad Prize for closing achievement gaps and academic innovation and has received other outside praise and recognition for its new initiatives.

For what it's worth, McCrory, who didn't oversee policy at the Charlotte district, has advocated for accelerating charter school expansion in the state. He also wants a two-track K-12 system that awards both "career diplomas" and "college diplomas."

The Wake County district in the Raleigh area, meanwhile, has not embraced the same kind of technocratic changes as Charlotte schools, Houck said. In contrast to the celebratory news in Charlotte about the Broad Prize, Wake County has gone through a high-profile battle over racial integration and busing. The bruising fight was linked to a national debate over the progress of civic institutions in the United States. The district may provide more of a traditional education symbol for whoever ends up as the Democratic nominee.

"It mirrors a pre-existing kind of geopolitical fit, and that creates a very interesting dynamic," Houck said.

Remember also that the Broad Prize doesn't necessarily lead everyone to pop the corks. Parents Across America co-founder Pamela Grundy complained last September about the system's decision to close down schools in poor neighborhoods, ramp up standardized testing, and a teacher pay-for-performance program. Grundy, who noted that she had a son in the Charlotte school system, said the district had done several good things as well, but wrote, "If the prize blinds school system and community leaders to the problems of this past year, encouraging them to steamroll a flawed agenda over parents, teachers, and children, it will mark a low point for our system."

Houck's theory is interesting, but it may not have actual political traction. A spokesman for the North Carolina Democratic Party, Walton Robinson, said that education, in particular the way in which both urban and rural school systems have made staffing cuts recently, is a statewide issue not captured by any Charlotte-Raleigh dynamic. He also said it was unfair to imply that Wake County schools haven't been innovative.

So, the disparate approaches of Charlotte and Wake County and a national education award don't make for slick and quick bumper sticker material. But to the extent that the Republican and Democratic nominees will discuss education, it will be worth watching the extent to which the two districts are reflected in the proposals and rhetoric.

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