Does CMS plan do enough for diversity?

The Observer editorial board

Superintendent Ann Clark looks over paperwork prior to unveiling the new CMS boundary plan on Tuesday.
Superintendent Ann Clark looks over paperwork prior to unveiling the new CMS boundary plan on Tuesday.

If you have a child who attends one of the 75 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools affected by student assignment changes proposed Tuesday night, you probably don’t consider those changes to be minor. Nothing is minor when it involves your child’s education.

Still, the proposals Superintendent Ann Clark put forth don’t go nearly as far as some parents in the district have feared, nor as far as some school diversity advocates have hoped.

Such are the political and pragmatic challenges CMS faces in this latest look at where its 147,000 students go to school. The district must confront the concentrations of poverty that are harmful to many CMS students, but officials don’t want too many families fleeing to a growing number of charter and private school choices.

Tuesday’s proposals won’t solve the former, and they won’t result in the latter. But they are, as a whole, a positive step for CMS – or at least the best step the district can take at this point.

The proposed changes are both numerous and incremental – with nearly half the district’s 170 schools affected, but with most of the proposals involving small pieces of geography and small numbers of students. Among the more notable changes is the pairing of three sets of CMS elementary schools to encourage diversity. Two of those pairings would combine schools with heavy low-income populations, Sedgefield and Billingsville, with schools that have a more affluent populations, Dilworth and Cotswold. Those plans call for students to attend Sedgefield and Billingsville in Grades K-2, then Dilworth and Cotswold in 3-5.

The pairings are a test case of sorts for CMS. If school board members resist the pressure that may come from Dilworth and Cotswold parents, and if the resulting diversity brings benefits to students, the district could look for more opportunities down the road for similar pairings.

Also notable from Tuesday’s proposals is a continued expansion of magnet choices for CMS families. As the Observer’s Ann Doss Helms and Steve Harrison report, the new proposals would add 4,270 magnet seats in 2018, well beyond what CMS proposed last year.

The magnet expansion gives parents in struggling schools more options – and options that are closer geographically. Both are good for families who need better choices, but neither is likely to have a significant impact on diversity unless a larger-than-expected number of white CMS parents choose to send their children to those magnets.

For that reason and others, diversity advocates will see Tuesday’s proposals as a missed opportunity. It’s true that CMS could have been more aggressive in redrawing student assignment zones – particularly the zone where Myers Park High School resides – or decided that diversity is more important than the integrity of those zones.

But given the skittishness of parents that CMS needs to stay in the district – not to mention a trigger-happy N.C. legislature that’s watching what happens here closely – school officials struck the right balance for now.