Exhausted and overwhelmed. Relieved it’s finally over, and discouraged to see the community split once again along lines of race and power.
That’s how I felt when I filed my last update on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools student assignment voting shortly before 2 a.m. Thursday. I suspect it’s how a lot of you feel too.
The board embarked on this mission almost two years ago, with members united in their resolve to reverse the racial and economic isolation that left too many schools academically hobbled. In November they unanimously approved a first stage of the plan, with talk about creating a national model that merges choice, neighborhood schools and a sophisticated diversity strategy.
But when Board Chair Mary McCray banged the final gavel at 12:40 a.m. Thursday, after four hours of split votes and angry rhetoric from her members, there was no sense of victory. For the past month, citizens and board members alike have tried to untangle a web of proposals that make little dent in the sorting of students.
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The new plan promises pockets of innovation – the Billingsville-Cotswold and Dilworth-Sedgefield pairings will be fascinating to watch – but the basic makeup of CMS seems unlikely to change. There will still be a slice of racially, economically and ethnically diverse schools sandwiched between high-scoring schools that serve mostly white and middle-class families and struggling schools populated mostly by poor, black and Hispanic students.
I wondered what, if anything, could have brought a different result.
It would have had to start with a compelling, practical vision for breaking the barriers between the educational haves and have-nots. Any such plan would bring costs and controversy, but all the people who spoke longingly about transformative change could have rallied behind it.
Imagine the leaders of the chamber of commerce, the banks and the health-care systems throwing their weight in, with top executives publicly pledging to put their children into public schools and encouraging their employees to do the same. Perhaps each big player would commit to enrolling children in a high poverty school offering a new opt-in program. Energy, clout and resources would follow the kids. Maybe a few years from now, the talk at the country club would be about whether Bank of America’s schools outshine Wells Fargo’s, or vice versa.
What if the faith community – white and black, those serving the affluent and those serving the poor and the immigrants – had united around a CMS plan? Perhaps they, too, would have committed their own children and rallied to support marginalized families with respect and dignity.
Political unity is too much to ask, even in a fantasy. But a significant contingent of local and state officials might have stood beside the school board to support the changes in CMS.
In this alternative universe, the final decision would have come with arguments and anger. But maybe – just maybe – it could have ended with Charlotte reclaiming its spot in national education lore as the city that can do things better.
Compare this fantasy with reality.
For two years we’ve heard powerful critiques of the way things are. But if a practical plan for change ever emerged, even in broad strokes, I didn’t see it – and I was looking hard.
The Opportunity Task Force, convened to unite Mecklenburg’s best minds around opening paths out of poverty, concluded two years of study with a report that urged the school board to be courageous in fighting segregation. One of the leaders talked about providing “air cover for those who need to make difficult decisions.”
But that cover never materialized. Instead James Ford, an advocate for students of color and co-chair of the group charged with executing the task force goals, posted an op-ed the day before the vote agonizing over what to make of the plan and concluding that CMS should start over.
From what I can tell, business leaders stuck with the safe approach to supporting public education, offering school volunteers and making donations to such causes as books for kids. Several faith leaders spoke up, but it was far from a show of unity.
State and municipal officials went their own ways. There were Charlotte mayoral candidates with impractical plans to cap school poverty, the suburban mayor talking about splitting from CMS and the warnings from state lawmakers, some of whom worked to open escape routes for anyone unhappy with assignment changes.
Mecklenburg County leaders have made important investments to support students, including school nurses and mental health counselors who work at schools. But when it came to student assignment, members of both parties took shots at the school board from the sidelines.
So here we are – relieved, disappointed or maybe just weary.
And the truth is, even in my parallel universe the challenges ahead would be similar.
Some would still be disappointed and angry, and CMS would have to face the consequences.
The board would still be getting acquainted with a new superintendent, who would still have to find the principals and teachers to create success at schools that are changing and those that aren’t.
CMS leaders would still be trying to figure out how to measure equity in education, how to ensure that all students get high-level opportunities and how to make discipline effective and fair. Those tasks are less visible than boundary changes, but at least as difficult.
In the real world, a lot of people who might make a difference will stay on the sidelines, just as they did with student assignment.
But a lot of others got engaged. Greg Skidmore was one of them, and when he spoke at Wednesday’s public hearing he rallied others like him not to ease up.
“The hard work does not end tonight,” he said. “The hard work is only beginning.”