Lengthy Trial in Charlotte Desegregation Lawsuit Winds Down

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A months-long court battle seeking to close the books on 30 years of court supervision of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools has left the North Carolina community torn over whether traces of racial segregation linger.

The trial, which is winding down this month in the U.S. District Court in Charlotte, stems from a lawsuit filed by a white parent, William Capacchione, whose 6-year-old daughter was denied admission to a magnet school in 1996 because of her race.

He sued the district in 1997, claiming racial discrimination and civil rights violations. Since then, six white families who are also seeking to end Charlotte-Mecklenburg's race-based student-assignment policies, have joined the case as plaintiffs.

Several black families who seek to maintain the district's desegregation plan have since filed their own lawsuit against the school system. They argue that because of big gaps in achievement between black and white students, the district is a long way from meeting desegregation requirements set by the courts.

'Fallen Short' of Equity

The trial reopens the historic case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which led to the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave districts nationwide the green light to employ an aggressive mix of methods, including mandatory busing and the limited use of racial quotas, to integrate schools.

Given that history, the outcome of the trial will resonate beyond Charlotte.

"This has national implications," said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, an organization of large urban districts. Charlotte-Mecklenburg has "become an icon over the years because of its history in urban desegregation."

Though testimony in the trial, which began April 19, was expected to wrap up this week, a ruling isn't expected until the fall.

The case is also significant because Charlotte has largely been seen by advocates of integration as a notable success story, said Charles V. Willie, a Harvard University education professor and desegregation expert.

"Charlotte has done as well as or better than most school systems," he said, "in terms of meeting the requirements of equity mandated by Brown v. Board of Education," the 1954 Supreme Court decision that struck down school segregation. "But they've fallen short of their own goals. All schools are not equitable," he added, and more work remains to be done.

That's exactly the argument that representatives of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system have brought to U.S. District Judge Richard D. Potter. Lawyers representing the school system have brought in reams of data and a parade of witnesses, including the district's superintendent, Eric Smith, to underscore the shortcomings of the district's desegregation efforts.

They claim the district has not yet reached unitary status, a legal term meaning all traces of state- or district-sanctioned segregation have been eliminated.

The system's mostly white, mostly suburban schools are better equipped, have better-qualified teachers, and turn out better students than the district's largely black schools, they say, and a clear achievement gap between black and white students persists.

"The evidence shows we're not unitary, not that we don't want to be," said Leslie Winner, a lawyer for the district. "This case is not just about desegregation. It's about the lack of educational opportunities provided to black kids. We need to own up to it. We need to fix it."

"There are still vestiges of a dual system," added Arthur Griffin Jr., the chairman of the district's nine-member school board. Mr. Griffin, who is black, attended Charlotte's segregated schools in the 1960s. "We've failed African-American students," he said. "We've failed to fulfill promises as they relate to the Swann case."

'An Obsession for Too Long'

But the white plaintiffs argue that 30 years is more than enough time to integrate schools. The 1969 federal district court mandate to integrate the system's schools, which led to the 1971 high court ruling, has been achieved, they say. The gap in achievement that the system has been decrying is proof, they argue, that desegregation has little bearing on academic performance.

"The parents involved are advocating to the court that the school system is unitary and that it's fully desegregated," said Larry Gauvreau, a white plaintiff and the father of three Charlotte-Mecklenburg students, two of whom attend a charter school in the district. "The school system is taking the absurd position that after 30 years, it is not. Our goal is simply to bring the district to a unitary position so that it can focus on quality education instead of mathematical balance."

But the black families in the case say that a return to neighborhood schools would worsen the inequities within the school system. "There is still a dual system serving the children of Charlotte," said Dwayne Collins, who is the father of two students in the district. "We need to move forward."

Vol. 18, Issue 41, Page 5

Published in Print: June 23, 1999, as Lengthy Trial in Charlotte Desegregation Lawsuit Winds Down
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