Of the many powerful Martin Luther King quotes, one of my favorites is “a right delayed is a right denied.” A group of parents would like the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to delay a vote on the district’s new student assignment plan until November. If that step toward progress is delayed, I believe it will be a step toward progress denied.
This current board and staff has spent the past two years working on a plan that would reduce the concentrated poverty that has amassed over the past two decades while assigning students to options near home. In the minds of some, the proposal does not go far enough, while for others the proposed change has a shock value that is outside the realm of their imagination.
As a parent, I have friends and acquaintances who likely fall under each umbrella. I will make a request of both sides: Ask questions of board members, talk with your similarly assigned neighbors, discuss ideas and opportunities as well as concerns around your assigned schools. But ultimately, support the work that has been done and allow those who have done the work to make the vote.
No, this is no silver bullet. But alas, it has never been about finding such a thing. It has been about using all of our available ammunition to combat the systemic discrepancies in opportunity that permeate our community. Those discrepancies led to developing an Opportunity Task Force and discussion forums at churches, museums, businesses and neighborhood meetings around the community.
This fall, following demonstrations and outpouring of energy that was unfamiliar to Charlotte, we had leaders in the business, civic and faith communities signing a statement that included a commitment to create change in systems and structures. They acknowledged that the change required will not be easy or comfortable but agreed to be committed to the continuous work of building and being a community of justice, equity, fairness and opportunity for all. Our time to fulfill that commitment has come.
Student assignment is not designed to cure all of our societal ills. However, when supported by the intentional development of affordable housing and public support of a well-designed bond, it can be a piece of a multifaceted approach to reversing the two-decade trend of our city’s soul bleeding out.
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that we were due for a student assignment review on the heels of a national study ranking Mecklenburg County 99th out of 100 counties in economic mobility. Three of the five factors in that ranking were residential segregation, school quality, and access to social capital – a sophisticated way of saying “who you know.” Be clear, our residential segregation is directly related to our schools. Our school quality is most adversely impacted by our most hyper-segregated schools of high need, and peer connections are one of the most influential forms of social capital that we experience growing up.
Charlotte is a city of abundance that often operates as a community of scarcity. In the end, whether physically or spiritually, we often starve each other. In 12-step recovery, there is a saying that in order to keep it, you have to be willing to give it away. If we want a sustainable, secure Charlotte, we will need to relinquish some of our instincts of constant control. And we need to start doing so now. Progress should not be delayed.
Justin Perry is co-chair of OneMeck, which advocates for greater school diversity and opportunity.