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Published in Print: February 18, 2004, as Color Bind

Color Bind

Three decades ago, a legal division involving Charlotte, N.C., paved the way for mandatory busing nationwide. Now, integration depends on where you live.

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Overview of Brown Series
Racial isolation in Summerton, S.C.
Racial imbalance
Overcrowding in Chicago schools
Challenges of diversity in Arlington, Va.'s public schools
Parental Choice

Something is different about the children gazing out the windows of the yellow school buses lumbering up Selwyn Elementary School's driveway: Most of the black faces are gone.

White children have taken the places of many of the African-American students who were bused to Selwyn, once an integrated school in the heart of one of this city's oldest and wealthiest white neighborhoods.

The Charlotte- Mecklenburg school district, free from a federal desegregation order, adopted a colorblind plan for student assignment in 2002 that is producing more racially isolated schools, like Selwyn, and more schools enrolling high concentrations of poor children.

From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, the North Carolina school system made up of Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County earned national acclaim as the "city that made desegregation work." The key was a landmark 1971 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, that cleared the way for Charlotte—and districts nationwide—to use mandatory busing and race-based student assignment as tools to achieve integration.

Now, many observers wonder whether Charlotte-Mecklenburg's school buses are headed in the right direction.

"Charlotte is stumbling and it's falling," laments Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "In a couple of years, in terms of racial composition of the schools, the district is going to be back where it was prior to Swann."

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The 2-year-old plan gives parents a choice of schools and provides all families with spots in the "neighborhood schools" closest to their homes. Since parents overwhelmingly choose their local schools, the district's 148 schools are becoming more racially and socioeconomically imbalanced. Suburban classrooms are overcrowded, and seats are left empty in inner-city schools.

This inevitable demographic shift, some observers say, shouldn't rattle the resolve of the "New Charlotte," a Southern city that rejected its segregated education practices long ago to emerge as a beacon for integration.

But others warn that the enrollment changes are derailing the racial progress that led to the region's economic boom and laid the foundation for its students' academic successes. This school year, 43 percent of the district's 116,800 students are African-American; 42 percent are white; 9 percent are Hispanic; and 7 percent are Asian-American, American Indian, or multiracial.

See Also...

See the accompanying Charlotte-Mecklenburg "Timeline."

Superintendent James L. Pughsley acknowledges that the system faces a crossroads: "Are we going to be one of those large, urban districts that allowed themselves to slip behind? We don't have to be. We have a chance to define our destiny."

A white parent, William Capacchione, sued the school system in 1997, alleging that its race-based admissions policy for magnet schools was unconstitutional. That lawsuit eventually led to the reactivation of the Swann case. In 2001, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., affirmed a lower-court ruling that Charlotte's schools were free of the vestiges of segregation. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case the following year.

What followed, some observers caution, could undo the gains Charlotte made during the years of desegregation.

"The Charlotte-Mecklenburg system may be allowing individual choice by parents to take such a predominant role, without doing the social math and looking at the communitywide impact of those decisions," says Jack Boger, the deputy director of the University of North Carolina's center for civil rights in Chapel Hill. "The system will become terribly segregated—with no single person having done a wicked thing."


Racial ratios aside, the district is gaining ground in closing the differences in achievement between students of different races. That, many argue, is the critical—yet unmet—goal of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which struck down separate systems of schooling for black and white students. May 17 will mark the 50th anniversary of that historic 1954 ruling.

"We've learned that desegregation is not the pathway to closing the achievement gap," says David J. Armor, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "Desegregation doesn't take the place of better teachers and smaller classes, or whatever one does to improve the achievement of minority children and poor children."

Eric J. Smith, who served as the superintendent here from 1996 to 2002, says that after more than 20 years of busing, disparities among Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools persisted, from the condition of facilities to the quality of teachers. Smith, now the superintendent of the Anne Arundel County, Md., schools, says most black students—whether they attended desegregated schools or not—were not making the grade.

Smith credits the Brown decision for moving public education in the nation forward, but says educators today face a different challenge. "If we in America can't get schools with high concentrations of poverty to succeed," he asks, "then what does that say about the major cities populated primarily with children from low-income families?"

The former Charlotte superintendent established an equity program that each year pumps millions of dollars into high-poverty schools in an attempt to boost test scores. Last year, the district allocated roughly $40 million to equity efforts, including teacher-pay incentives and smaller class sizes.

The investments appear to be paying off. On national and state tests, results show the district is making headway in reducing the gap that finds African-American and Hispanic students lagging behind their white and Asian-American peers.

Pughsley, the district's current chief, points out: "The reason 'separate and equal' never worked was because it was never equal. We've moved from equal opportunity to equal results."


The additional money spent to produce those "equal results" in the classroom could be in jeopardy, however.

Suburban parents are growing impatient with crowded classrooms and are lobbying hard for new schools. The Mecklenburg County Commission, which provides roughly a third of the district's $887 million annual budget, is run by a Republican majority that has supported tax cuts and hasn't increased school funding for the past two years. Some residents also believe the newly elected school board will siphon off dollars directed to low-performing schools to meet parents' demands.

"It's like having the worst of both worlds," declares Stephen Samuel Smith, a professor of political science at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. "The system will be resegregated, and we're not going to have the resources that have been promised."

Nancy D. Beasley, the principal of Selwyn Elementary, worries about the black students who didn't return to her classrooms after the race-based assignment plan was dropped two years ago.

Since 2001, Selwyn's black enrollment has decreased by more than half, from 34 percent to 16 percent of its 526 students this year. The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of family income, fell from 31 percent to 16 percent.

Most of the pupils who left Selwyn now attend schools with large numbers of poor children. Their class sizes may be smaller, but Beasley says she regrets that the students won't receive the benefits, such as an active PTA and business partners, that are typical of a school with a more integrated population.

Using enrollment figures for 2003-04, Mickelson of UNC-Charlotte found that 33 percent of the district's schools were racially balanced, compared with 52 percent in 2001, the final year of race-based assignments. The number of schools where the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches exceeded 50 percent climbed from 53 in 2001 to 76 in 2003, according to the district. About 44 percent of the district's students qualify for lunch subsidies.

The system tried to maintain socioeconomic and racial diversity through parental choice, says Eric J. Becoats, an assistant superintendent for planning and development. But most suburban parents chose their neighborhood schools. And with 4,000 new students joining the rolls this past fall, most schools were overcrowded, leaving few vacant seats for parents seeking different schools for their children.

In fact, just before 5,000 people entered the district's annual school information fair in January, officials dropped the word "choice" from the application guide for the 2004-05 school year.

"Unless we get rid of the home-school guarantee," Becoats cautions, referring to neighborhood schools, "we're not going to deal with the concentration of poor and minority kids."


Withdrawal of the pledge to back neighborhood schools is extremely unlikely.

A vocal and well- organized crop of suburban parents insists that school feeder patterns remain stable. Parent activists backed two newly elected school board members who are staunch supporters of the neighborhood-school guarantee, creating a majority on the nine-member board.

Teresa Hermanson, who moved to Charlotte's southern suburbs five years ago, believes the system's preoccupation with race- based assignment led to fractured communities. Over nine years, she says, the elementary school attendance zone in her neighborhood has changed five times.

'The system will become terribly segregated—with no single person having done a wicked thing.'
Jack Boger,
University of North Carolina

Hermanson, a white stay-at-home mother with traces of a Long Island, N.Y., accent, organized Parents for Education in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last year. The group advocates high-quality schools and a consistent pupil- assignment plan that addresses the growing student population—issues that she says transcend race.

Largely missing from the neighborhood-schools debate are the voices of African-Americans—once the conscience of the struggle for integrated schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. While desegregation advocates are dispirited by the legal defeat here, some black parents say they find themselves torn between pushing for better-quality schools and seeking ways to foster integration.

"You can't sacrifice a child's academic opportunity for diversity," says Jay Ferguson, an African-American parent of three whose father, James E. Ferguson II, represented the black plaintiffs in the Swann case. A 1988 graduate of an integrated Charlotte high school, Ferguson says parents shouldn't be forced to make that agonizing choice.

A newly formed group of advocates for integration and school equality held a protest here late last month, outside an exhibit commemorating the Brown decision at the Levine Museum of the New South. Members of the group believe the promise of equal schools for all remains unfulfilled. One founder, Richard A. McElrath, a retired Charlotte teacher, says if the city's schools continue to become racially isolated, then "the money will follow the white children. That's just a fact of life."


Arthur Griffin Jr., the former chairman of the Charlotte- Mecklenburg school board, can't hide his dismay as he walks the hallways of West Charlotte High School, once the crown jewel in the city's desegregation efforts.

Roughly an hour after three new members were sworn in on Dec. 9, the board reversed student-assignment decisions. They contended that the changes were minor and, in some cases, would help preserve the neighborhood- school philosophy. But other board members argued the shifts would exacerbate racial and economic isolation in some schools.

For Griffin, whose soft- spoken manner belies his strong beliefs, the board's actions on the night he made his farewell remarks represented his worst fears. "It sends a message to the community that diversity no longer matters," says Griffin, a 17-year board veteran who vowed not to lead the board that "resegregates" Charlotte's schools and did not seek re-election last year.

Griffin has only to glance around West Charlotte High to see how much the district has changed since the heyday of integration in the early 1980s. This year, roughly 90 percent of the 1,500 students here are black; about 3 percent are white.

Racial ratios aside, the district is gaining ground in closing the differences in achievement between students of different races.

White politicians and business leaders once sent their children to West Charlotte High with children from the affluent and middle-income black families who lived nearby, says Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

"West Charlotte is the symbol of the rise and fall of desegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg," says Wells, who is completing a study of the graduates of the class of 1980 in integrated high schools across the nation, including West Charlotte.

Griffin charges that concessions that he and other board members made on student assignment were followed by broken promises, as the district yielded to the mounting pressures of a growing enrollment and assertive parentsmany of them newcomers to Charlottewho were opposed to busing.

"People always talk about their commitment to diversity," says Griffin, who is the vice president for national urban markets at the McGraw-Hill Education Co. "But the same people would wink and look the other way when tough decisions were made about pupil assignment."

Economic and population growth in the district's far north and south regions strained efforts to desegregate schools. From 1990 to 2000, the county added about 148,000 new residents, making it the 25th-fastest-growing county in the United States. About 800,000 people now live in Mecklenburg County.

Ironically, Smith of Winthrop University argues that without school desegregation, Charlotte would not have developed into the nation's second- largest banking center. Still, he says, business leaders failed to help preserve the district's integration efforts as highways and residential communities were developed away from its urban core.

"Development trumped desegregation every time," argues Smith, the author of Boom for Whom? Education, Desegregation, and Development in Charlotte, which will be published in April.

Kit Cramer, who is the group vice president for education at the Charlotte Chamber and the school board's new vice chairwoman, says the primary motivation of developers is understandably to make money. She adds, however, that the local business community has a long history of strong support for public schools.

Shifting to an assignment plan based on neighborhood schools wasn't a matter of caving to the demands of well-connected suburban parents, she insists, but an act of self-preservation.

"If you don't take into account the desires of individual parents, you lose them," Cramer warns. "You lose their vote on bond issues, you lose their tax dollars, and the tremendous support they generate."

Cramer says the community has no choice but to both build new schools and give high-poverty schools additional resources.

But board member Larry Gauvreau, who was one of the white parents who sued seeking an end to the desegregation plan, complains that the district is dedicating too much money to equity programs. "We're investing in the notion that social engineering is better than an educational course," he contends.

More than 30 years after school buses first began traveling Charlotte-Mecklenburg's roads in the name of integration, some people predict potholes along the new race- neutral course.

"The community has lost its will and its way," asserts James Ferguson, the lawyer who helped represent the black families in the desegregation case. "The community has to stand up for desegregation, or sit on its hands and watch the community become racially isolated."

Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is underwritten by grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

Vol. 23, Issue 23, Pages 44-48

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