Goal No. 1 for CMS: Breaking up poverty

The Observer editorial board

Passions ran high last week as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board discussed student assignment.
Passions ran high last week as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board discussed student assignment. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

When it comes to student assignment, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board seemingly can’t win.

If board members move to break up concentrated poverty at inner-city campuses, they’ll enrage suburban middle-class parents whose students might well lose seats in their neighborhood schools.

If board members reassign students without attacking the poverty problem in a substantial way, advocates for low-income students will blast them as moral cowards who failed to stand up for disadvantaged children.

The board is groping for middle ground, but there’s precious little to be found.

As the full board prepares to adopt goals for the student assignment process during its Feb. 23 meeting, we urge the members to put aside their personal conflicts and declare breaking up poverty clusters to be the top goal of the reassignment process.

One in three CMS campuses are segregated by poverty, and half are segregated by race, according to UNC Charlotte researcher Amy Hawn Nelson. Why does that matter? Racially and socioeconomically diverse campuses produce better test scores, graduation rates and college attendance than high-minority, high-poverty schools.

And yet the number of high-minority, high-poverty schools in CMS jumped during the 2000s from about 10 to more than 40. Now, 53 percent of minority students attend high-poverty campuses that are more than 90 percent non-white.

This problem does not solely threaten the stability of high-poverty campuses. It threatens the viability of the entire school district, and of Charlotte as a city. The board simply cannot back away from this issue.

The five goals, as developed by the board’s policy committee, currently are not itemized in priority order.

They should be – especially the top two.

Make breaking up concentrated poverty the No. 1 goal.

Point goal No. 2 at ensuring, as much as possible in light of goal No. 1, that thriving neighborhood schools keep thriving as anchors in their communities.

At the very least, the board can start now in taking hysteria hot-buttons off the table.

If it is not open to aggressive, 1970s style cross-town busing, the board should say so in the goals. If it intends to do no more than nudge suburban campus poverty levels higher – a wise impulse, given charter school alternatives – say so now.

It is hard to blame the school board for taking its time in framing this most sensitive undertaking. But months have passed. Its deliberative pace now borders on foot-dragging.

CMS is collecting input via a community survey, and a consultant will soon come aboard to help the board craft a specific plan. We hope both will further clarify issues and priorities.

Meanwhile, the community is already forming opinions and taking sides.

The longer the board waits to signal its main intention, the more those positions will harden.