CMS stumbles on its next steps toward equity

CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, left, talks about equity with board members, from left, Ruby Jones, Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Sean Strain at a February retreat.
CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, left, talks about equity with board members, from left, Ruby Jones, Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Sean Strain at a February retreat. Charlotte Observer

In February 2018, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox released the “Breaking the Link” report revealing that CMS was one of several systems in this community that was “failing” some of our families and children. “We are ready to meet that challenge and (use this report) as a first step to draw a line in the sand,” Wilcox said then.

For folks familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous, the report was Step 8, where one makes a list of those who were harmed and becomes willing to make amends.

Breaking the Link explicitly named ways that CMS had been shortchanging students in high poverty schools, most specifically African American and Hispanic students. It acknowledged gaps around advanced course offerings, experienced and qualified teachers, discipline, and gaps in chronic absenteeism.

How has the school board responded? In its most recent policy committee meeting, three of four members — Sean Strain, Ruby Jones and Carol Sawyer — offered proposals of next steps involving the creation of an equity committee to work alongside the board and staff in this process.

Jones proposed an ad hoc group that would meet “as deemed necessary to focus on advancing equitable practices” with parents, students, community members and educators.

Sawyer offered a choice of two proposals: 1) A committee modeled after a large Ft. Worth group that offered broad access to educators, parents, students and community members, or 2) A 12-person group that consisted of community appointees, three parents, a student, two representatives from local universities, and a non-voting member appointed by the superintendent. This group would meet quarterly to maintain the fidelity of the work while “building trust and engagement in the broader community.”

Strain’s proposal discussed “equity for all students” and initially called for delaying any discussion of an equity committee until December 2019, when a new school board will be elected. (He later amended that to mid-2019.) Strain also referenced the new Equity Department hire of the superintendent as sufficient oversight and encouraged those in attendance to “trust” them.

Given that Sawyer’s and Jones’s proposals looked the most similar, it’s perplexing that the committee landed 3-1 (with Sawyer dissenting) on Strain’s motion. In what world would a body reveal to the public the various ways that they have been shortchanging, black, brown, and poor children, push back against public engagement of the reconciliation process, and subsequently say, “trust us” we’ll fix it this time?

Trust is earned, not given. When board member Elyse Dashew, who advocated at this recent meeting for an equity committee, is mysteriously removed from the policy committee in the middle of the process, that doesn’t build trust. When Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who has championed equity for her entire seven-year tenure and been on the policy committee every year, is kept off this one, that doesn’t build trust. Instead, we are following the lead of someone using the “all lives matter” phrase “equity for all,” when his district is one of the least impacted.

While acknowledging the harmed is important in addiction recovery, making amends is the next crucial step — and one that Charlotte constantly avoids. To truly recover, CMS needs to immediately begin finalizing equity focus areas for change and forming an equity committee that, for once, will help Charlotte be proactive instead of reactive.