Speak up: Is CMS heading down the right student assignment path?

Many Charlotte parents have pressed the school board for guaranteed seats in the schools close to their homes.
Many Charlotte parents have pressed the school board for guaranteed seats in the schools close to their homes. Mark Hames

As the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board prepares to hear what the public thinks of new student assignment guidelines, the biggest question may be how – or whether – things will change.

The answer to most questions is “to be determined.” Last week Superintendent Ann Clark released a draft of principles that will guide specific decisions about boundaries, magnets and other issues. After a public hearing Wednesday, the board is expected to vote on those principles April 26, then move to the heart of the work.

The document outlines a system where students are assigned to schools based on where they live but can apply for magnets and other opt-in schools. That’s what Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been doing for more than a decade.

For people who feared that board members were planning drastic change and massive reassignment, that comes as a relief.

The factors used to set boundaries also sound familiar: Making good use of available space, avoiding boundaries that split neighborhoods and considering the distance between schools and homes.

The clearest difference is that students would get priority for admission to magnets “based on socioeconomic status” and that boundaries for newly established schools can be drawn to “contribute to a socioeconomically diverse student population.” Students in schools that get low state ratings for three years in a row would get priority for alternative assignments.

That offers hope to people who want CMS to ensure that the most disadvantaged kids aren’t concentrated in schools where educators struggle to meet the needs, top scholars have few high-performing peers and students never meet classmates from more affluent backgrounds.

How this vision will play out – and even what some of the key terms mean – remains to be seen.

Don’t say ‘neighborhood schools’

The assurance that students will be assigned to nearby schools brought acclaim from neighborhood school advocates. But Clark said last week she was careful not to include that term, and encouraged board members and staff to avoid it as well.

She says that’s because parents assume that means their children will go to the closest school, which isn’t necessarily true. And Mecklenburg County is big enough that CMS can’t provide a school for every neighborhood.

Board member Tom Tate, who has led much of the assignment review, said he dislikes the term because it has historically signaled opposition to desegregation.

The guidelines use the current CMS label for schools with assignment zones: “Home schools.”

The challenge is that to many – including the state of North Carolina – that term means schools in which parents teach their children at home. The state has more than 5,000 home schools registered in Mecklenburg County, serving about 7,700 students who are taught by their parents.

Wake County uses “base school” to describe schools with assignment zones. Clark said she prefers that label, but it’s unfamiliar in Charlotte.

Socioeconomic status also murky

References to socioeconomic status hint at another challenge ahead.

In the wake of court rulings overturning race-based assignment, plans based on income have emerged as an option for districts that want to promote diversity. “Socioeconomic status” – also described as poverty or economic disadvantage – is generally measured by whether students qualify for federal lunch subsidies based on family income.

But CMS now has thousands of students in high-poverty schools where everyone gets a free lunch without filing applications. Clark and Tate say figuring out an alternate definition will be one of the first steps in that making new rules for magnet lotteries, which are used when students seeking admission to popular programs outnumber the available seats.

The draft principles are posted at, under “2017-18 Student Assignment Review.” The public hearing starts at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the meeting chamber at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. Call 980-343-5139 by noon Wednesday to speak, or sign up on site before the meeting starts.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms