Saturday, June 9, 2007

With resegregation, Charlotte, North Carolina has witnessed a critical loss in intercommunity cooperation and support for public schools

Charlotte’s experience underscores why communities that value robust public support for public education should avoid racial polarization within a school system. Readers can read about Charlotte’s story in the Brief of the Swann Fellowship, filed in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 by sixteen individuals and a non-profit called the Swann Fellowship. These seventeen amici include former members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education, current Charlotte-Mecklenburg students and parents, and religious organizations that make up the Swann Fellowship, which advocates for a quality, equitable, integrated public school system. Together, these amici have over 40 years of direct experience with de jure segregation, court-ordered desegregation and, after unitary status was declared in 2001, resegregation.

In their brief, the Charlotte amici describe the monumental changes that happened in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools during the era of desegregation. As thousands of parents involved themselves in their children’s newly integrated schools, the public emerged as an unanticipated force in school affairs. Schools benefited from the advocacy of integrated PTAs, bi-racial grassroots advocacy helped tilt school board policies toward more equitable outcomes for African American and less affluent white students, and the business community reversed itself to become a major source of support for an integrated school system. Before 1972, no African American had ever been elected to school board. After 1972, a majority white electorate repeatedly cast winning votes for an integrated school board and no anti-busing candidate was elected to the school board for the next eighteen years.

To the degree that desegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg provided a new context for increased racial, social and political cohesion, this cohesion likely would not have materialized if integrated schools had failed to serve the educational needs of CMS students. The evidence shows that CMS students benefited both academically and socially from racially diverse schools. After desegregation the performance of both African American and white students improved, with African American students experiencing the most dramatic progress.

In the 1990s, a new superintendent, explosive population growth, and pressure from new arrivals to Charlotte’s suburbs (who often did not share in the sense of civic investment in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s successful experience with desegregation) prompted the district to move away from the use of busing as a means to integrate its schools and to rely more on the use of magnet school assignments. Schools became more racially identifiable during this period. Still, only 4% of Black students attended 90-100% minority schools in 1995. Soon, that number would skyrocket.

After a parent challenged the district's race conscious magnet admissions policies in 1997, his lawsuit ultimately resulted in a 2001 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had achieved unitary status, a decision opposed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Board of Education. The school board responded to the loss by adopting a “race-neutral” plan in 2002 that sent most students to neighborhood schools. In the very first year of neighborhood assignments, the number of schools with minority enrollment of 91% to 100% more than doubled, and the number of racially identifiable schools jumped from 47 to 81 schools. Two years later, 87 (out of 150) schools were racially identifiable.

Public support for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools soon began to unravel and the discord continues to this day. Predominantly white, middle- and upper-middle class schools are effectively closed to non-white students who live outside of privileged neighborhoods. Achievement data showing inferior academic outcomes in inner city, minority schools has motivated parents of students in overcrowded, majority white schools to stay put and demand that the district prioritize new construction in the suburbs. Parents of students in majority nonwhite undersubscribed schools, angry over chronic low performance in these schools, have demanded that the focus be on addressing the academic crises in racially isolated schools. United only by their anger, voters from Charlotte’s segregated white suburbs and its segregated African American center city recently defeated $427 million in school bonds. Meanwhile, millions of dollars of reform efforts targeting academic performance in racially isolated minority schools continue to fail to achieve the targeted results.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg experience provides a cautionary tale. The costs are high when school districts and communities ignore the connections between racial integration, public support for schools and quality educational opportunities for all students.

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