Fewer white and black children attend Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this year, but rapid increases in the Hispanic population kept CMS growing, according to the district’s annual racial demographic data.
The shift comes as both white and black families have been leaving traditional public school districts for charter schools, and no county has more of the schools than Mecklenburg. This year, nearly 11,000 students attended Mecklenburg charter schools. These schools are public and operated with tax dollars, but outside of county school districts.
“I think the key story is unintended consequences, what happens when families are opting out, but not opting out in equal ways,” said Amy Hawn Nelson, director of social research at UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute.
CMS also remains significantly divided based on race. Sixty-two schools in the district are more than 90 percent nonwhite, two more than last year. More than half of black and Hispanic children attend one of these schools, which make up more than a third of the district’s 164 campuses.
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Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of white children attend schools that are majority white.
The data reflect trends playing out across North Carolina and the nation. Charlotte’s Hispanic population has surged far faster than growth in both white and black populations. Between 2010 and 2013, the Hispanic population grew 11 percent, twice that of the white population.
Divided charter schools
The movement toward more racially isolated schools began in 1999, when a federal judge ruled that CMS could no longer use race as a factor in student assignment. Instead, the district moved to a “choice” system that offered parents the ability to put their children in a neighborhood school or apply for a system of magnets.
Today, magnet schools that pull from across the county tend to be among the most racially diverse. But housing patterns have contributed to increasing racial division.
That’s only been exacerbated by the influx of charter schools, which began three years ago after the state legislature lifted the long-standing cap on how many could operate in North Carolina.
Several of the district’s largest charter schools, such as Lake Norman Charter, have heavily white populations. Others, such as KIPP: Charlotte, are primarily black.
“There are very distinct racial patterns in some of those charter schools,” said Bill Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit MeckEd. “Some of those schools are extremely white, and some of them are extremely nonwhite. None really have a large Hispanic population.”
Overall, CMS grew by about 2,500 students in 2014-15, continuing a trend of roughly 2 percent growth each year since the recession ended. The growth did not come across the board.
▪ Black students remained the largest demographic group in the CMS population at 40 percent, but their overall numbers fell slightly.
▪ White students fell below 30 percent for the first time after several years of declining population.
▪ Hispanic students jumped by nearly 10 percent, making up almost the entire increase in the overall CMS population. They now account for 21 percent of the district.
▪ Walter G. Byers School, a K-8 campus in west Charlotte, remained the least diverse school in the district with 89.7 percent black students. Only two white children attend.
▪ The Renaissance School at Olympic High appears to be the most representative school, with its demographics almost equivalent to the district as a whole.
Race and class
The conversation on race in CMS is also inextricably linked to economic diversity and school performance.
Schools in CMS that have large minority populations also tend to have large low-income populations and tend to have lower test scores. More affluent families, who tend to be white, often opt to send their children elsewhere.
For example, as it set its new school boundaries last fall, the school board heard repeatedly from parents in the Chantilly and Commonwealth-Morningside neighborhoods, who had been assigned to Billingsville Elementary, which is 95 percent nonwhite. Several said their neighbors, who bought high-priced homes, didn’t view the school as a viable option.
“Parents win the lottery, go to private school, or move away,” Commonwealth-Morningside resident Scott Thomas told the school board.
The school board ultimately decided to reassign those areas to the newly reopening Oakhurst Elementary, which is reopening as a science, technology, engineering, arts and math magnet program.
Black: 58,800 (40.4 percent)
White: 43,532 (29.9 percent)
Hispanic: 30,469 (21 percent)
Asian: 8,337 (5.7 percent)
Other*: 4,225 (3 percent)
Black: 58,888 (41.2 percent)
White: 44,103 (30.8 percent)
Hispanic: 27,807 (19.5 percent)
Asian: 7,885 (5.5 percent)
Other*: 4,307 (3 percent)
*Other: American Indian, Pacific Islander and Multiracial.
Source: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools