People rooting for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to roll back racial and economic segregation rallied to a national expert’s presentation Thursday night at UNC Charlotte Center City.
Rucker Johnson, a University of California, Berkeley public policy professor who writes and speaks about school desegregation, said that integration is a powerful tool to increase health and prosperity and reduce crime. The benefits are strongest when integration is coupled with higher per-pupil spending and early childhood education and health care, he said.
“Some of the best crime-prevention and health-promotion polices are not in criminal justice,” he said. “They’re in education.”
About 300 people gathered for a forum titled: “Grandchildren of Brown,” referring to the generations that experienced school desegregation after the 1954 Supreme Court case and descendants who attend schools that are increasingly isolated by race and income. Economic inequality is the biggest hurdle to equity now, Johnson said: “Now the achievement gap by class is two times the achievement gap by race.”
Johnson brought a rapid-fire presentation of data, from national studies to numbers showing that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reached a peak of racial integration in 1980 and has seen a rising number of schools with very high poverty levels in the past decade.
In 1999, court-ordered desegregation was overturned in CMS, and in 2002 the district rolled out a race-neutral assignment system that combines neighborhood schools and magnets.
“Segregation is not the weather,” Johnson said. “This doesn’t just happen by itself. This is something that happened because of policy action or inaction.”
Johnson said there is hope for Mecklenburg County because “this community has seized the opportunity to turn this around.”
The forum is among a series of community events emerging as the school board re-examines student assignment, with most board members saying they want to increase diversity and reduce concentrations of poverty. They haven’t decided how to do that, though.
A panel of local speakers was asked to offer advice.
Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, who is leading a task force on economic opportunity, urged the board to remember that white and affluent students benefit from integration too. “This is a two-way street here,” she said. “Everybody’s better.”
Rosie Molinary, an author and speaker who tries to empower young Latinas, said the board shouldn’t fixate on test scores: “Powerful learning happens with an emotional connection.”
Julian Wright, a lawyer who led CMS’ now-defunct Equity Committee, said the board should set an upper limit on school poverty, even if it’s higher than many would consider ideal: “Come up with a cap that’s reasonable and workable and doesn’t require you to alienate the community.”
Ivan Lowe, business chair at York Technical College and co-founder of a mentoring group, said to remember that you can’t bus students too far, even if you want to move students out of low-perfoming, high-poverty schools.