Fifteen years ago this month, U.S. District Judge Robert Potter issued a ruling that thrust Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools squarely into the midst of a challenging education and civil rights issue: school resegregation.
On Sept. 9, 1999, Potter ruled that CMS must stop using race as a factor in student assignment, setting aside a 30-year-old federal school desegregation order. The 1969 Swann decision, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971, led to busing as a way to desegregate schools nationwide. Potter had fought Charlotte’s school desegregation.
CMS appealed the Potter ruling. An appeals court panel largely overturned Potter in 2000, but the full court agreed with him in September of 2001 that the system was desegregated. In a twist, the court found the magnet program challenged in the lawsuit that began it all was legal.
With legal fights against desegregation orders already under way throughout the 1980s, led by the Justice Departments of the Reagan and Bush administrations, according to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA report, CMS anticipated the court’s likely ruling. The board approved a non-race-based plan, and the “Family Choice Plan” was rolled out in December 2001.
Arthur Griffin, school board chair at the time, remembers the turmoil surrounding the issue. “We (on the board) were split in terms of what the next steps should be.”
The possibility that the new plan could lead to resegregation was openly discussed, both in the community and by the board. But eventually, board members coalesced around a choice plan that included what they considered “safeguards” – an equity plan that required smaller classes, high quality teachers, better facilities and other resources at the high-poverty, predominantly minority schools the plan would create.
Griffin was the lone vote against the plan, saying this week he didn’t believe that the safeguards would be honored over time. “It was my toughest time – to be that one vote.”
Commitment to those safeguards did wane as resources tightened and suburban areas pressed for more schools to relieve crowded facilities as students flocked to those schools. The new plan brought a dramatic jump in mostly one-race schools and high-poverty schools. In 2001-02, 1 in 7 schools had poverty rates of at least 75 percent. By 2006, it was nearly 1 in 3.
Those are predictable patterns of resegregation nationwide.
The value of school diversity is still hotly debated. Yet studies do show long-term benefits including reduced segregation in workplaces, reduced likelihood of racial prejudice, and more likelihood to attend college and become engaged citizens. A study this year from professors at UNC Charlotte, the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Columbia Graduate School of Business linked CMS resegregation to “significant increases in crime among minority males,” finding that the increase was “driven entirely by poor minority males who live in highly segregated neighborhoods and are assigned to schools with higher shares of poor minority students.”
The study also found that “resegregration of CMS schools widened inequality outcomes between whites and minorities.”
I wrote after the 1999 ruling that “neighborhood schools will inevitably bring resegregated schools to many sections of Charlotte. For poor black communities, that will mean concentrated poverty schools. So far, no city with such resegregation has been able to make such schools flourish.”
Today, CMS and districts nationwide are struggling with that daunting challenge. CMS is seeing some progress as increased graduation rates and improved test scores announced this week attest. Still, the academic gap between minorities and whites remains wide.
The UCLA study offers suggestions that could help, including public policies to tackle persistent housing segregation, better use of magnet programs and ensuring highly qualified teachers at concentrated poverty schools. Griffin echoes those recommendations yet points out that there’s no substitute for diverse schools. “That’s the world we live in, that’s the environment our students will work in.”
The Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg said much the same in 2010, and noted this irony: “Today, 95 percent of education reform is about trying to make high-poverty schools work ... Research suggests there is a much more effective way to help close the achievement gap. And that is to give low-income students a chance to attend middle-class schools.”
That’s harder to do these days. But diverse schools are still worth the effort.