Your Schools

CMS school poverty cap sounds good, but could be tough

Moderator Steve Crump asks a question of Democratic mayoral candidates, including Michael Barnes, Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter, David Howard and Jennifer Roberts (l-r) during Wednesday’s debate.
Moderator Steve Crump asks a question of Democratic mayoral candidates, including Michael Barnes, Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter, David Howard and Jennifer Roberts (l-r) during Wednesday’s debate.

Candidates for Charlotte mayor are jumping into the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools student assignment discussion, with two Democrats saying at a Wednesday debate that they support a cap on poverty levels at any given school.

Incumbent Dan Clodfelter and Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes urged the school board to look at Wake County’s model of capping poverty levels.

It’s a plan that sounds appealing, even obvious – until you start talking about how to make it work.

Barnes indirectly highlighted that challenge at an earlier forum, when he suggested that CMS should consider Wake County’s model of limiting school poverty levels to 40 percent.

Wake County had a policy where no school could have no more than 40 percent poverty. ... We should look at the 40 percent cap.

Charlotte mayoral candidate Michael Barnes at a Charlotte Post forum

On one level that makes sense. That feels like a percentage many families would accept. Piedmont Middle School, a racially and economically diverse magnet school that logs high scores and generates long waiting lists, lands somewhere between 40 percent and 45 percent poverty.

But the math doesn’t work here.

Wake had a districtwide poverty level somewhere around 30 percent at the time the 40 percent cap was in place. In CMS today, just over half of all students come from low-income homes. So realistically, you’d be talking about a cap of 60 percent or higher if you wanted to balance enrollment by economic status.

In 2003, then-Superintendent James Pughsley warned the school board that once poverty levels at any school top 50 percent, you reach a tipping point where academic challenges soar. That was when the districtwide poverty level was 44 percent. Pughsley broached the subject of poverty caps, but the board quickly shot that down.

54 percent of CMS students were labeled economically disadvantaged in 2013-14

61 schools had poverty levels of 75 percent or higher

49 had poverty levels below 40 percent

Today, not only has the whole district hit the point Pughsley warned about, but the system has roughly 60 schools with poverty levels of 75 percent or higher. More than a dozen top 90 percent.

Meanwhile, there are 49 schools with poverty levels at or below 40 percent, including 26 with levels below 20 percent (the numbers are for 2013-14, the most recent year with publicly available data, when there were 157 schools).

In short, it would take a whole lot of student-shuffling to get all schools to an average level.

Barnes, a CMS parent, said Thursday he understands that the numbers are different here. He said he cited the Wake number as an example – and one that sounds more appealing than talking about 60 percent or 70 percent.

Most members of the school board, who are launching a student assignment review, agree that such high concentrations are bad for students and staff. But they’re a long way from deciding what to do about it.

There won’t be easy solutions. The idea of busing children all over Mecklenburg County for demographic balance isn’t likely to be embraced in affluent neighborhoods or poor ones. Plans to encourage voluntary transfers might not generate enough participation and can leave some schools half-filled while others strain at the seams (remember the CMS choice plan of the early 2000s?).

And looming over the whole discussion is the fear that unpopular changes could drive families to adjacent counties, charter schools or private education, leaving CMS with only the most disadvantaged students. It’s a scenario that has played out in urban districts across America.

“I don’t want to run people out of the system,” Barnes said Thursday.

Many school board members and education advocates say the long-term solution involves better racial and economic integration of neighborhoods, rather than relying on schools to counteract adults’ self-imposed segregation. So even if city leaders haven’t got all the answers, their participation in the debate is a step forward.

And they, too, face a host of challenges on that front. Read my colleague Eric Frazier’s analysis of that issue here.

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