Your Schools

What does it mean when we talk about busing in CMS?

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bus lets students off at Ethel Guest Lane.
A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bus lets students off at Ethel Guest Lane.

If I were scripting a scene to illustrate the contradictions in the way we talk about busing, I couldn’t have done better than Levester Flowers’ comments at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Flowers, a school board candidate, spoke at a hearing on a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plan to offer more busing to get students to magnet schools. He praised the plan because “no way should we be using busing” in student assignment.

No one laughed or looked confused. That’s because we all understand that there’s busing, and then there’s … well, busing.

When the yellow bus takes our kids to a school we’re happy with, it’s transportation.

When it takes them to a school we don’t like – or we’re afraid that might happen – it’s busing. Or, if you want to crank the anxiety up a notch, “forced busing.”

In “Dog Whistle Politics,” Ian Haney Lopez traces that phrase back to Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, calling it part of a strategy to appeal to racism without being as explicit as segregationist George Wallace. “The language may have referred to transportation,” Lopez write, “but the emotional wallop came from defiance toward integration.”

Here and now, with a CMS board campaign entering the final stretch and a student assignment review cranking up, there’s a lot of talk about busing.

Candidate Jeremy Stephenson is warning voters that other candidates and/or advocacy groups want to bus their children.

“If you don’t already know, a small group of activists who feel they know better than you where your children should go to school are pushing very hard for a pro-busing agenda,” an Oct. 24 campaign email said. “This means busing YOUR kids across Mecklenburg County adding HOURS to their school day.”

I can’t speak to the motives of Stephenson, who is white. And it’s worth noting that Flowers, who made the “no way” comment about busing, is black. Like so many things in education, race is part of the context, but hardly the whole picture.

Meanwhile, board members, candidates and organizers of OneMECK, the group pushing hardest for diversity, insist that they are not calling for busing. Of course, “diversity” is also a code word that says more about which side you’re on than what you actually want CMS to do.

At this point, it’s far from clear what anyone’s plan for student assignment is.

So let’s take a deep breath and try to speak honestly as Mecklenburg County moves down this rocky road.

First of all, CMS is busing now and it’s going to keep busing, unless the district puts its 1,000-plus buses on the used car lot and tells everyone to find their own way to school. That would unite the county – in anger.

Second, let’s acknowledge that most of us want the same things.

Almost everyone supports school diversity, though we may argue mightily over what it looks like and how to achieve it.

We like lots of options, short bus rides and low cost to taxpayers.

And who doesn’t want great schools close to home?

The trouble is we can’t have it all. And the tradeoffs are where the friction occurs.

The latest magnet school busing plan illustrates that point.

During the recession, CMS saved millions of dollars by requiring that families who want a bus ride to some magnet schools take their kids to pickup and drop-off points at other schools. For some that was an inconvenience. For others it shut the door.

And some families discovered that the “shuttle stops,” which deliver their kids straight to school, shaved a lot of time off their kids’ bus rides, making it practical to choose magnets across town. Those are the parents who bombarded board members with emails and calls when an Oct. 13 report talked about eliminating those stops.

Now Superintendent Ann Clark says she’s going to offer both options: Shuttle stops for those who want them and neighborhood pickup for those who need it. But it’s going to cost up to $6 million, and Chief Operating Officer Carol Stamper says it’s going to mean longer bus rides for most magnet students.

Every single student assignment decision is going to play out this way. There will be costs and tradeoffs.

And the folks who are satisfied with the current state of things are likely to be the best organized. That’s going to show up as CMS moves toward any changes that shake up the status quo.

The campaign will be over next week, but the student assignment journey is just beginning.

One option is to pick a side and jump into the trenches. Another is to try to speak clearly – and listen thoughtfully – as some very tough choices are charted.

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