Last week, I wrote about a promising school integration lawsuit in New Jersey. This week, the news is not as good: On Wednesday, North Carolina passed a law – #HB514 – that will allow 4 majority white suburbs of Charlotte to secede from the countywide Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. Although secession efforts have been common across the country recently, this one is unique for at least two reasons:

  • Other places have sought to secede by splintering smaller public school districts off from a larger/more diverse district (e.g., Gardendale, ALMemphis-Shelby County, TN). However, the NC law uses charter schools as the vehicle for secession. It authorizes charters specifically in the 4 suburbs pictured in the graph below and allows them to limit enrollment in these schools to municipal residents.
  • One barrier to secession via charter school is that there are more restrictions on the use of property tax revenue for things like school building construction. But, the NC bill takes care of that. It also includes a provision that allows town governments to indeed use public funds for charter schools the way they would for traditional public schools.

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(CMS schools are on the left and the 4 suburbs are on the right; credit: Justin Parmenter)

Proponents of the bill claim that it has nothing to do with race:

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This post offers an answer to that question by taking a broad look at the history of segregation, integration and then re-segregation in Charlotte and its schools.

To start, I’m going way back at the turn of the century, because I think it still resonates today. This great piece in the Atlantic notes that segregation in Charlotte (as in so many other placeshad to be invented:

  • Between the end of the Civil War and 1899 (when NC passed its first Jim Crow law), “black and white people lived next to each other in Southern cities, creating what the historian Tom Hanchett describes as a ‘salt-and-pepper’ pattern.” According to this article, wealthy political elites were concerned about a growing political alliance between low-income blacks and whites, so they devised segregation as a way to, well, divide them.

I see HB514 is part of the lineage of policy that engineers racial division. I’m going to zoom ahead to NC’s resistance toBrown:

  • In the immediate aftermath of Brown, NC voters overwhelmingly supported the Pearsall Plan, which “allowed districts to shutter schools that became integrated, and provided state-funded vouchers to allow white students to flee integrated schools.”

Then, 1969 ushered in a new and uniquely successful era of school integration in Charlotte. That year, the Pearsall Plan was declared unconstitutional in Godwin v. Johnson County Board of Education. And, famously, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a federal district court approved busing as a remedy for school segregation. Swann was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1971, and Charlotte quickly became a model for integration across the country. Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools began busing on September 9, 1970, with 525 buses across the the countywide school district. It was enormously successful:

  • During this time, many NC cities and towns merged forming countywide school districts. This article cites a NC-based policy analyst who reflects that “In North Carolina, consolidation was the way forward on integration,” adding that “there was no other way.”
  • By the 1980’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg become one of the most racially integrated school districts in America.
  • Charlotte Observer editorial wrote that Charlotte’s “proudest achievement of the past 20 years is not the city’s impressive new skyline or its strong, growing economy. Its proudest achievement is its fully integrated schools.”
  • And, I found this particularly touching – after the virulent response to busing in my home city of Boston, students from CMS “invited students from Boston to come down South, to see that integration could be done peacefully, to the benefit of all students.”

Nearly 30 years after busing began in Charlotte, school integration received a devastating blow. A white parent filed suit against the city, claiming that his daughter had been denied admission to a local magnet school because of her race. In that case – Capacchione v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg – a federal judge ruled that the Swann case was no longer relevant. In a haunting piece of foreboding, the deciding judge wrote that “racial imbalances existing in schools today are no longer vestiges of the dual system; and that it is unlikely that the school board will return to an intentionally-segregative system.” That decision was later upheld in an appeals court. Busing ended, and resegregation accelerated rapidly. A recent report found that Charlotte-Mecklenburg is by far the most racially segregated district in the state. To achieve racial balance today, more than half of the students in CMS would have to be reassigned to different schools.

The effects have been stark. There are a lot of resources for those who want to dig into the data. Here are a few points that I found most compelling:

  • In a study of America’s 50 largest cities, Charlotte ranked 49th in economic mobility for poor children. A separate study, published by Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, found the same, noting that “If you are born poor in Charlotte, you are likely to stay that way.” These reports look at income, but of course race and income are highly correlated.
  • And, we shouldn’t lose sight of how school segregation ripples through virtually all aspects of social life. This fantastic piece by Clint Smith connects school segregation to the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and the protests that followed his death. Smith notes “In Charlotte, the chances of black males coming into contact with the criminal-justice system increased with the resegregation of their high schools.” There’s a lot in his piece that can’t be summarized here- I highly recommend a full read.

As you know, the story does not end here. In 2017, NC lawmakers took aim at consolidated districts. Last year, the legislature passed a bill (despite considerable Democratic dissent) that authorized a committee to decide whether consolidated districts should be allowed to splinter. That committee had its first meeting in February of 2018, initiating a process that, in part, led to Wednesday’s enactment of HB514.

It is significant that the bill seeks to break up countywide districts. As noted earlier, consolidation was viewed as the only way to pursue integration. Indeed, counties that splintered before HB514 have become more segregated afterwards.

And, it is also significant that the bill uses charters as the vehicle for secession. As noted here by Jeff Bryant, “In North Carolina, there’s little doubt parents use charters to segregate.” And, more specifically, as avenues for wealthy, white students to leave traditional public schools. When charter schools were originally approved in North Carolina, they were required to “reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition” of their home district. However, in 2013, the bar was lowered to require only that charter schools “make efforts” to reflect the demographic makeup of their communities. Duke University recently looked at charter schools in North Carolina, and the results are pretty straightforward:

  • Over the last 15 years, the proportion of white students in NC public schools has decreased, while the proportion of white students in NC charter school has increased.
  • In traditional public schools, only 30% of students attend schools that are “highly segregated.” Meanwhile, at NC charter schools, more than 2/3rds of students attend “highly segregated” schools. This article has a map of the demographic breakdown of Charlotte schools in 2015.

So, yeah – I just don’t see how this bill could be separated from the history here. After Brown, there were pitched debates about things like school district boundaries and the use of public funds (at the time, it was vouchers) to finance white flight. Although the specific policy mechanisms are different, the debate today still centers around very similar core issues. However, proponents want us to believe that HB514 is somehow disconnected from the history outlined above, claiming that the law is about things like local control or choice, but definitely not about race. Could anyone possibly believe this?

It brings me back to this quote from Clint Smith’s piece, referenced above. What he says is relevant not only for major stories like HB514, but for all the many and much smaller ways that we choose to ignore race in education policy and practice:

When we operate as if the past is irrelevant, and propose ostensibly race-neutral policies in a deeply racialized world, we inevitably create social institutions that perpetuate that social stratification.

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