Tough test awaits the school board

The Observer editorial board

Bruns Academy is among the city’s high-poverty schools.
Bruns Academy is among the city’s high-poverty schools. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

The academic year is winding down for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, but the school board is just getting started on perhaps its toughest task for 2015.

Once every six years, the board conducts a countywide review of its student assignment policies. It studies everything from school attendance lines to magnet school themes to see if anything needs tweaking, or even overhauling.

As the board waded into the task on Tuesday, thorny questions re-emerged. Should every child continue to be guaranteed a spot in their neighborhood school? Should CMS redraw attendance zones to boost diversity?

Important questions, of course. Since 1999, when U.S. District Judge Robert Potter barred CMS from using race in student assignment, campuses have slid toward resegregation.

Sixty-two of the county’s 164 campuses are more than 90 percent non-white, and more than half of CMS’ minority children attend them. Socioeconomic and racial segregation seem bound to intensify, given housing patterns.

An Observer study of Census data last year found that 1 in 4 Mecklenburg residents lived in economically distressed neighborhoods in 2010. That was up from just 1 in 10 in 2000.

None of it bodes well for local schools. That’s why board members Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Tom Tate put the issue of student assignment back on the table during Tuesday’s meeting.

Study after study has shown that poor students do better in mixed-income settings than when concentrated in high-poverty ones. While Potter’s ruling bars racial considerations, it doesn’t ban socioeconomic ones. So at least in theory, that’s an option – albeit a controversial one, judging from the turmoil surrounding Wake County’s income-based integration approach in recent years.

The growth of charter schools adds a wrinkle. Board member Rhonda Lennon noted that if the school board overhauls student assignment, unnerved parents will simply flee to the growing array of charter schools.

That’s the tough spot the board finds itself in. There’s little public appetite for the aggressive desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s, but the board must keep pushing for diverse campuses.

Maybe that means it must tease as much diversity out of its attendance zone review as possible, stopping only where it borders on disrupting parental support at neighborhood schools.

Perhaps it means the board must make more use of partial magnets, and consider updating themes to zero in on computer technology, advanced manufacturing and other in-demand skills.

This much is certain: CMS must not surrender its campuses to segregated housing patterns. But in an era of increased competition, it must fight that battle without alienating affluent parents.

It all amounts to an extraordinarily tough public policy-making test. Let’s hope the school board is up to the task.