Charlotte-Mecklenburg Not Yet Desegregated, Court Rules

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A federal appeals court ruled last week that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools are not fully desegregated, overturning a lower-court decision that would have ended decades of busing just as the district was putting a school choice plan in place.

The Nov. 30 ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., was not unanimous. Two judges found that the district had achieved "unitary" status in some areas, such as student discipline and faculty, but called the district's remaining predominantly one- race schools a "vestige of segregation."

"We must decide whether the task of desegregating Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools has reached its end," Judges Diana Gribbon Motz and Robert B. King wrote. "We hold that it has not."

Judge William B. Traxler Jr. wrote a dissenting opinion agreeing with the U.S. District Court's ruling.

A lawyer representing black members of the school community praised the ruling as an affirmation that the district has not provided equal educational opportunities for black students.

But leaders of the 103,000-student district, who weren't seeking to be released from court supervision, are scrambling to determine whether they should continue with plans to end race-based student assignment next fall.

Board members met with Superintendent Eric Smith in closed-door, emergency sessions last week. As of press time Dec. 1, they had not commented publicly.

Maree Sneed, a Washington- based lawyer with Hogan & Hartson, a firm representing the school board in the case, said she was pleased the district had prevailed in its argument.

"We think that the court made a very careful and thoughtful ruling," she said. "Now we have to say what it means."

Historic Case

Charlotte- Mecklenburg, where minority students, including black children, make up 60 percent of the overall student enrollment, uses busing and magnet schools to desegregate its system as part of the historic 1965 case known as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.

That case led to the landmark 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision that permitted the use of mandatory busing to integrate schools, opening the way for court-ordered busing in other districts as well.

In 1997, white parents challenged the use of such tools, claiming their children were denied access to magnet programs because of their race. The parents later broadened their attack to include the district's entire desegregation plan.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Robert D. Potter of Charlotte issued an injunction against the use of race for student assignment in the district and mandated that a new student-assignment plan be implemented in the fall of 2000. He declared the district "unitary," or free of any indications of a dual education system for blacks and whites.

The school board appealed Judge Potter's ruling, even as it began developing a complex plan of school choice. The district also was granted a year's extension to start the new assignment plan.

Nora Carr, the district's assistant superintendent for public information, said the board moved forward with the development of the choice plan last year following numerous public hearings in which parents had expressed the desire for more educational choices, neighborhood schools, and more stability about where their children attend school. The board adopted the plan in June.

The district planned to go ahead with a school showcase on Dec. 2 to allow parents and students to meet with faculty and staff members of every school. According to the school choice plan, next fall all students must select a school and will no longer be assigned to one based on their residence.

"Clearly, we're going to need to make some decisions pretty quickly in terms of how to proceed," Ms. Carr said.

The ruling will not have national implications because desegregation cases are based on the factual situations and legal obligations of individual districts, Ms. Sneed said.

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City who represents local black parents, students, and school staff members in the case, said the district likely would need to make changes to the proposed student-assignment plan.

The court's ruling gives Charlotte-Mecklenburg the flexibility and authority to eradicate all remaining vestiges of a separate and unequal school system, she said.

"I think the Fourth Circuit Court ruling sends a message that a school system, especially one that acknowledges that there is more work to be done, should be allowed to do that," she said.

Vol. 20, Issue 14, Page 11

Published in Print: December 6, 2000, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Not Yet Desegregated, Court Rules
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