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Cheers and anger as CMS vote tilts precarious balance on assignment

Protesters at Tuesday’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting objected to the hiring of Alves Educational Consultants Group.
Protesters at Tuesday’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting objected to the hiring of Alves Educational Consultants Group. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Watching the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board navigate a student assignment review has been like watching a tightrope walker bob and sway over dizzying heights.

On one side of the rope stand people who hope the review will reverse school segregation and take bold action to fix failing schools. On the other, those who worry that such moves could undermine successful neighborhood schools and fuel public-school flight.

With each discussion and decision, the board has been perceived as swaying toward one side or the other. Earlier this month, the board appeared to have struck a tenuous balance with guidelines that affirm neighborhood assignments while opening the door to new diversity efforts.

But Tuesday’s vote to hire a firm that specializes in socioeconomic diversity and “controlled choice” launched a new round of cheers and groans.

“I want to stand by them. They need our support. But it’s getting harder,” said Rachael Weiss of CMS Families United for Public Education, a parent group that supports neighborhood schools but says it’s trying to avoid a polarizing approach.

“I think they’re courageously taking what was a very challenging situation and struck a strong balance,” countered Justin Perry of OneMeck, which emphasizes diversity. “I’m proud of the work they’ve done.”

Alves Educational Consultants Group, a Massachusetts firm that won a $135,000 contract to advise Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, is hardly a household name in Charlotte. In national education circles, though, its leaders are known as leading voices in the push to replace race-based integration plans, which have been overturned by courts, with assignment strategies that use socioeconomic status to encourage diversity.

Founder Michael Alves, who wasn’t available to discuss the CMS contract Wednesday, has made a name promoting “controlled choice,” a system that eliminates neighborhood assignments and lets families choose schools in an attempt to promote integration.

“Controlled choice was initiated as a way to promote voluntary racial integration,” Alves writes in a piece posted on the WRAL website. “It was then modified through the years to promote voluntary integration of diverse social and economic backgrounds.”

In casting the sole vote against the Alves contract, Rhonda Lennon noted that Alves has been dubbed “the godfather of controlled choice” in media accounts. That term was echoed widely Wednesday, as word of the firm’s selection circulated.

Skeptics say controlled choice is at odds with the guidelines the CMS board approved Tuesday night, which affirm that all students will have the option to attend schools close to home. Superintendent Ann Clark and numerous board members insisted that the Alves consultants have agreed to follow the guidelines and won’t try to foist another district’s plan on CMS.

Board member Tom Tate said Wednesday that the board already knows how to do neighborhood-based assignment. “I thought we needed expertise in something else,” he said. “Why would we choose somebody who specializes in what we already do?”

But critics said hiring the firm to do something outside its field of expertise makes little sense.

“I feel like we’re going to a Chick-fil-A and asking for pizza,” said Melanie Baron of CMS Parents United for Public Education.

While Alves may be an unfamiliar name locally, the group’s proposal included two familiar elements. It touted the firm’s experience helping Wake County school district create a “comprehensive diversity and achievement conscious student enrollment plan” in 2012. And it called for hiring Amy Hawn Nelson, a researcher with UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, as a local adviser.

Nelson was one of the earliest and most influential voices urging CMS to fight school resegregation, drawing hundreds to meetings in which she presented data about academic shortcomings in schools where most students are nonwhite and come from low-income families.A product of the busing era in CMS and co-editor of a book on CMS “desegregation and resegregation,” Nelson has celebrated the benefits of diversity and cited Wake County as an example of better assignment policies.

To people engaged in the CMS assignment debate, she’s either a voice of enlightened expertise or an advocate using data to push an agenda.

The board’s $135,000 contract scaled back on the $225,000 Alves proposal; the $25,000 that would have gone to hiring Nelson was cut. Tate said the consultants realized CMS could provide much of the same data Nelson could and “it would save us a bunch of money.”

Jessica Miller, a former teacher who has worked with pro-diversity groups, called the selection of Alves exciting and said she hopes Nelson will still be involved. Others said they worry about just that: “She’s not objective and she doesn’t pretend to be objective,” Baron said.

Alves was one of three firms that submitted proposals in response to the CMS board’s request. CMS posted all three on its website, but said nothing about choosing Alves until the agenda item was quietly posted Monday afternoon. Many board members, including Chair Mary McCray and Vice Chair Elyse Dashew, were unavailable to discuss the decision Wednesday.

Tuesday’s vote played out in front of a small but hostile crowd at Butler High in Matthews. Green-shirted neighborhood school advocates came with signs protesting “biased consultants” and stating plans to leave CMS. After the vote to hire Alves, they walked out noisily.

As word spread Wednesday, Molly Reed, a CMS parent who has spoken for neighborhood schools, said she shuns such confrontational tactics but shares the concern: “I really feel as if this board is paving a very smooth road for an exodus.”

Ross Danis, executive director of the nonprofit school advocacy group MeckEd, said he’s frustrated by the perception that each assignment decision is a victory for one side and a setback for another.

“We have to do something to stop this divisiveness,” he said Wednesday. “I want a round where everybody wins.”

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