It may have been overshadowed by the election, but the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s vote this week to take steps toward diversifying schools has drawn attention around the nation and state.
It’s exciting and innovative, says Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank with offices in New York and Washington.
It’s wrong-headed and ideologically driven, says David Armor, a George Mason University public policy professor who specializes in student assignment research.
It’s a move in the right direction, says Keith Poston of the Raleigh-based Public School Forum of North Carolina.
For almost 50 years CMS has played a leading role in the nation’s struggle with race, class and education – first as a pioneer of desegregation in 1970, then with resegregation in the early part of this century, after courts overturned race-based assignment.
Charlotte’s riots and protests in September, while sparked by a police shooting, revived national scrutiny of CMS, where thousands of black, Hispanic and low-income students attend schools with very few white and middle-class peers.
Wednesday’s unanimous school board vote moved CMS into the growing ranks of districts trying to counteract such isolation by using socioeconomic status to diversify schools. CMS will use family income, single-parent status, English proficiency, home ownership and parents’ education levels to identify the challenges or advantages that often shape educational success, then use the 2017 magnet lottery to try to create a healthy mix.
Except for a few magnet programs that are moving, students won’t be forced to switch schools. District leaders have tried to strike a balance between creating opportunities for disadvantaged kids in low-performing schools while protecting the successful neighborhood schools that inspire fierce loyalty.
While the first step may be small, simply opening the diversity door has fueled hopes and fears. Superintendent Ann Clark, a 34-year veteran of CMS, called it “an exciting and significant moment in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools history.”
Overkill or Trojan horse?
Armor, one of the nation’s leading opponents of diversity-driven assignment systems, said Thursday he’s puzzled by the CMS decisions so far.
On the surface, he said, the district seems to have invested a huge amount of time and energy into changes that will likely affect only a few students who opt into magnets. In most districts only about 20 percent of families want to travel farther for magnets and other options, he said, and CMS is already near that point.
But based on what the board has said about the importance of diversity, along with the choice of Alves Educational Consultants Group to help craft the plan, Armor said he suspects a long-term move toward the “controlled choice” approach that Alves is known for. Unlike the CMS plan, which preserves guaranteed seats in nearby schools, controlled choice plans require all students to apply and be placed through a lottery.
“I think it is so wrong-headed to put the emphasis on diversity,” Armor said. “It’s more of an ideology than it is based on really hard data.”
Armor also contends that CMS doesn’t have enough white and middle-class students left to bring significant diversity to high-poverty schools. Most of the white and middle-class students live in the northern and southern suburbs, and Armor said anything that forces them to move could drive them out of public schools.
A balanced approach
Armor’s concerns have been voiced by local critics as well, including County Commissioner Jim Puckett, who staged a last-minute effort to persuade board members and the public that the magnet changes would alienate families and do little good for students in low-performing schools.
But school board members – including those who represent the suburbs – say they’ve struck a balance that lets people stay with schools they like while creating conditions that can open doors for disadvantaged students.
“I think any effort to break down some of the resegregation that has been happening in Charlotte is a good move,” said Poston, president of the Public School Forum. “The path that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is embarking on is absolutely the right way to go.”
Like CMS, Wake County’s school system offers an array of magnets. Wake used to use socioeconomic status in assignment, but abandoned that after political upheaval in the school board in 2010. Poston says much of the voter frustration with reassignment was mistakenly attributed to diversity plans, when it was really driven by rapid growth and the need to build new schools.
The Century Foundation calls socioeconomic diversity plans “a new wave of school integration.” The group found 83 school districts using such plans or working on them, up from two in 1996.
Potter said the CMS vote is important, not only because the district is already in the spotlight but because its plan strikes a balance and uses a sophisticated measure of socioeconomic status.
“The beauty of it is that you have a system that’s based on choice, but because it has diversity at the center it puts families on a much more even playing field than they have been on,” she said.
Next steps are vital
Like Armor, Potter says the CMS plan won’t mean much if few families use it. That’s why she says it’s vital for CMS to market its options – something district leaders say they’ll do in coming weeks.
Potter also says diversity-based assignment must be coupled with support for students and teachers who face new challenges. For instance, if a magnet that has catered to more affluent, well-prepared students gets a larger number of disadvantaged students, teachers must be able to create lessons that move top students ahead while providing extra help for others.
Again, CMS leaders say that’s part of their plan.
The plan has garnered some support, even in a fiercely divided county.
Ashley Williams is one of the organizers of Charlotte Uprising, a coalition of activists that arose after the Sept. 20 shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. Resegregated schools were often cited among the grievances in the protests that followed.
Williams said Friday that moves to break up such isolation are a good step, but she sees the biggest benefit in efforts to mobilize “students of color and marginalized students” to tell their own stories about educational issues. Several have spoken at recent school board meetings, and Williams said Uprising will support ongoing efforts to encourage their voice.
Jim Taylor, mayor of Matthews, talked about south suburban seccession from CMS after the school board began its student assignment review in 2015. He said Thursday the plan that emerged seems to offer choices without disrupting the schools that his constituents value.
“From what I’ve seen so far, I think it’s OK,” he said.
CMS is now talking with principals and school leadership teams about Phase 2, a review of neighborhood school boundaries that’s designed to culminate with a vote in May. Preliminary proposals are likely to be presented to school communities in January.
“The radar goes on high alert for Phase 2 for us,” Taylor said. “We’re going to continue to be engaged and involved moving forward.”