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Commentary: An elephant our city needs to talk about

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have become largely re-segregated by race and class.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have become largely re-segregated by race and class. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

From Rev. John Cleghorn, pastor of Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte:

There is an elephant in Charlotte’s living room and it’s looking fairly comfortable. The question is: how do the rest of us feel about it? That is, if we see it at all.

We have plenty of distractions. Our economy is humming, diversified beyond banking with a new entrepreneurial edge. A new vibe resonates through our arts and culture.

As billboards around town proclaim the good news, “Charlotte’s got a lot.”

But Charlotte has also lost a lot.

That brings us back to that elephant, which is the fact that our schools have become dangerously and deeply segregated along lines of race and class. Once a national model for school integration, Charlotte schools have regressed perhaps more than any other major city in the U.S.

Today, one in three of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools is isolated by class – meaning at least 80 percent of their students live in poverty. One half of our schools are isolated by race – meaning at least 80 percent of their students are of one race. In one in five schools, 95 percent of students are all of one race, termed “hypersegregation.”

Charlotte's retreat from desegregation is notable because, at one time, we soared higher than any other community. So our plummet is a greater, steeper disappointment. Yes, Charlotte has lost a lot.

The story behind this radical reversal is a complex one. It involves court rulings and demographic shifts, rapid population growth, new housing and real estate development patterns, placement of new schools, student assignment policies, difficult financial trade-offs, shifting leadership priorities and geographically limited options for affordable housing.

Now that we see the elephant, will we leave it alone to rest comfortably? Or will we seek change? The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education is working on a new student assignment plan, an effort that will last well into 2016. Solutions aren’t easy or obvious. They will need funding and support for high quality choices for all, inclusive housing policy and courageous, sustained civic leadership across all our county’s municipalities and elected bodies.

Solutions require not only political will but public will, shaped by commitment to true equity rather than outdated notions of equality. Families will need broad choices and will need to be open to those choices. It took two generations to regress, so change won’t be quick.

The questions of segregation and educational equity can’t be separated from issues of poverty and upward mobility. We know from one Harvard study that Charlotte ranks last in upward mobility among America’s 50 largest cities.

In the end, will we choose to be a community of isolated communities, which is hardly a community at all? Or will we choose to be a covenant community – one where we are bound together as neighbors across our differences? That question brings these interrelated issues to the doorsteps of our houses of faith. Every great world religion holds to a version of what Christianity calls the “Golden Rule,” which binds us together as neighbors.

We have a problem, Charlotte. It involves our largest social compact, our public schools. How we respond will define our city for decades to come.

Will we choose to be a covenant community?

Meck Min will host a dialogue, “We need to talk … about our schools,” focusing on school re-segregation Monday night, August 24 at 7 p.m. at Caldwell Presbyterian Church, 1609 East 5th Street, Charlotte.

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