The unintended victims of the suburban charter school bill: White kids

Under House Bill 514, Matthews and Mint Hill could open their own charter schools.
Under House Bill 514, Matthews and Mint Hill could open their own charter schools. File photo

"Tell Justin he can’t say that kind of stuff in South Charlotte.”

It was the Tuesday Morning Forum in Charlotte a couple years ago, and I had just spoken about problems with school segregation. We have two epidemics, I said, including one with concentrated poverty that produced opportunity gaps and fueled the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affecting black and Latino youth. No problem.

Then there was the part that caused a prominent audience member to issue his South Charlotte warning. I explained how we also had an issue with concentrated affluence that had helped Charlotte grow into a top 10 national market for black tar heroin. At a heroin summit not long before, I'd learned that most overdoses in Charlotte occurred in CMPD's South division from South Park to Pineville, with 91 percent of the victims being white. Of new users, a third started from ages 16-18, in other words in “top” high schools.

If you think desegregation is about sacrificing white affluent kids, the data show we are already sacrificing them with segregation.

As someone who grew up in Charlotte, I saw this pattern long ago, except then it was cocaine instead of heroin. As a clinician with clientele from affluent bubbles, I understand that the opioid epidemic, like all addiction, is more complex than the tidy narrative of legit prescriptions gone bad. Often, a conflation of emotional and physical pain drives the stats listed above.

In her book “The High Price of Affluence,” Dr. Suniya Luthar had similar observations as she studied poor inner-city youth and affluent suburban youth. Following the students over eight years, she found that affluent youth had significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and self-medication than all peer groups. Affluent girls were three times as likely to experience addiction as all peers; boys were twice as likely.

Those kids often have imbalanced perspectives on success and identity centered solely on academic achievement and competition, Luthar wrote. She has since replicated this research in economically segregated Northeastern suburbs and schools that resemble what is developing around Charlotte. Madeline Levine’s "The Price of Privilege" similarly notes higher rates of eating disorders, self-harm and suicide. In Charlotte, some prominent private mental health practices build relationships with private and affluent schools, as they are often breeding grounds for these challenges.

The research parallels my own clinical observations. Outside of the nearly three years I spent in rural Stanly County, much of my career has been spent working with those in concentrated poverty — primarily black and brown — and those in concentrated affluence, primarily white. The former often suffer from a rat race for survival while the latter suffer from a rat race of competition, achievement and status. Limited life perspectives due to segregation make both vulnerable.

Leading on Opportunity co-chair James Ford has aptly described HB514, a bill that would allow Matthews and Mint Hill to build and run their own charter schools, as putting a fence around suburban children. I think fences work two ways. They can protect, but they can also imprison.

When students in “top” local schools are our most drawn to self-harm, suicide and deadly drugs, it's problematic. When a local “top” high school has a slew of kids expressing suicidal tendencies over potential college admissions, it’s tragic. While HB514 would deepen the affluent bubble and undermine economic mobility, there would likely be other unexpected victims — the children of Matthews and Mint Hill.