The bustling Southern city of Charlotte, North Carolina, is once again grappling with segregated schools, a problem we had all but conquered nearly 40 years ago. Unfortunately, for too many poor students and students of color in the Queen City, the opportunity gap is alive and well.
Charlotte, the city that once showed the nation how to integrate—after the landmark case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education—has resegregated, except this time it’s along both socioeconomic and racial lines. It’s been a tough time in the press for my city. Word of our march backwards has been plastered on several major news outlets for the better part of a year.
Adding insult to injury, a 2014 study titled Where Is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States ranked Charlotte dead last in social mobility out of the country’s 50 largest cities. The area’s poorest children are the least likely to lift themselves out of poverty than anywhere else in the nation. The study has embarrassed us immensely, particularly when it cited schools and segregation as major factors.
Hence the school board has revisited student assignment hoping to mitigate the problem. This has set off a firestorm of responses from local residents. As a child of integration, an educator and former teacher in a segregated high school, I’ve written and spoken extensively on the topic, along with many other scholars, parents and equity advocates throughout the community.
It’s personal to me, because I know what happens: Poor kids who live in a poor neighborhood go to poor schools with inadequate resources, high turnover, and the least experienced teachers where they ultimately get a poor education qualifying them to work at jobs where they will make poverty wages and the cycle continues.
Wash, rinse, and repeat for the next generation to wear the garment of disadvantage.
THEY’VE PLAYED BY THE RULES
Many from the more middle- and upper-class parts of the county have predictably come out in favor of neighborhood schools. They’ve touted the benefits of short commutes, walking children to their bus stops, and going to schools with friends as reasons to keep a flagrantly inequitable system in place. Families understandably feel they have bought into certain schools, purchasing homes in certain regions, with school assignment being a major driver.
For better or worse, many feel they’ve played by the rules and that their children should not be made to suffer because of the disadvantage of others. Of course, some of the outcry has manifested age-old prejudices and stereotypes about low-wealth populations and people of color. Allegations of spreading the problem around with children from communities that “don’t value education” have been aired during board meetings.
My favorite was a reference to doing nothing more than “moving chairs around on the deck of the Titanic,” by focusing on breaking up concentrations of poverty. (The irony, of course, is that even on that sinking ship, the wealthy were given preferential treatment when it was time to escape).
What has been lost in the hand-wringing and emotionally driven discourse is evidence. What does the research say about segregation? We have a half-century of literature on the topic and it’s pretty clear on the damage segregated schools do to students both academically and socially.
OF COURSE IT’S NOT A CURE-ALL, BUT IT HELPS
Although there is no cure-all to close “achievement gaps,” integration has been proven to help a lot. Not only does it offer impoverished students access to better resources, veteran teachers and more rigorous course offerings, but it does not harm the achievement of more affluent students. An important point, since many feel they are sacrificing the quality of their children’s education in the name of desegregation.
In some ways, inclusive schools benefit wealthier students cognitively by exposing them to different perspectives and cultures. One need look no further than the nativism embodied in the Trump campaign and xenophobia of North Carolina’s recent law reversing protections for the LGBT community for examples of why this is necessary.
Charlotte is not alone since districts all over the country are also dealing with resegregation. As many as 91 school systems have voluntarily committed to breaking up concentrations of poverty. U.S. Secretary of Education John King has been calling for socioeconomically and racially integrated schools in the recognition of education as a civil rights issue.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education has only started to adopt goals and guidelines for the student assignment process, with the intention of hiring a consultant to assist in drafting a plan. What remains to be seen is how far it’s willing to go to ensure the right to equal educational opportunity is protected.
James E. Ford is program director at the Public School Forum of North Carolina.
Read more insightful articles and commentary on America's school system at EducationPost.org.