Equity & Diversity

Federal Judge Declares Charlotte-Mecklenburg Unitary

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 22, 1999 3 min read

Concluding that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district has fulfilled the purpose of its 30-year-old desegregation order and eliminated all vestiges of a dual system of segregated schools, a federal judge has declared the North Carolina district unitary. The controversial action removes the district from court supervision and ends race-based admissions to the district’s magnet schools.

Moreover, U.S. District Judge Robert D. Potter’s ruling this month could force the district, which paved the way for busing as a way to achieve racial integration of schools nearly three decades ago, to abandon the practice.

“Essentially, [the district] is ‘standing in the schoolhouse door’ and turning students away from its magnet programs based on race,” Judge Potter wrote in his Sept. 9 opinion.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that districts should be found unitary if they have done everything “practicable” to remedy the effects of a “dual” system of racially segregated schools.

Plaintiffs in the case cheered the decision, but school officials and civil rights leaders, who have argued that the district has failed to provide equal racial access to schools, sharply criticized it.

“This is certainly a disappointment. ... We think that the vestiges remain,” said school board Chairman Arthur Griffin, citing superior facilities and resources and higher achievement levels in predominantly white, and mostly suburban, schools. “But we haven’t given up yet. ... I am not going to be chairman of a board that brings schools back to the 1960s. It won’t happen during my tenure.”

Officials for the 99,000-student district, which encompasses the city of Charlotte and suburban Mecklenburg County, have not yet decided if they’ll appeal the decision, which they must do by Oct. 12. In the meantime, they have placed a moratorium on magnet school applications and requests for school transfers, unless they are clearly not race-based.

Suit Added

The latest round in the district’s desegregation battle began in March 1998, when Judge Potter agreed to consolidate a new lawsuit brought by a white parent with the historic Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education case. The parent, William Capacchione, charged that the district violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when his 1st grade daughter was denied entry into a magnet-communications program in 1996 because of her race.

Nearly four dozen of the district’s 138 schools have magnet programs, which use race-based admissions to gain greater integration throughout the school system. More than 40 percent of the district’s students are black; 50 percent are white. Six other parents joined the suit challenging the student-assignment policies. Several black families seeking to maintain desegregation efforts filed their own lawsuits.

The trial, which ended this past June, reopened the long-dormant Swann case. That case led to the 1971 Supreme Court decision that gave districts the green light to employ an aggressive mix of methods, including mandatory busing and the limited use of racial quotas, to integrate schools.

Resegregation Ahead?

A lawyer for Mr. Capacchione, who has since moved to California, said his client was thrilled with the ruling.

“For the first time in almost two generations, the people of Charlotte have direct control over their school board and their schools,” William S. Helfand said.

The Institute for Justice, a Washington-based legal organization that opposes racial preferences, praised the decision."The nightmare of forced busing is finally coming to an end,” Clint D. Bolick, its litigation director, said.

But desegregation advocates expressed concern that the decision could undermine efforts to equalize education for black students nationwide.

“School districts around the country will be watching closely because of the symbolic significance of the Charlotte case,” said Theodore M. Shaw, the associate director counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented the original Swann plaintiffs. “This broad injunction would bar even future voluntary efforts to do anything about racial segregation and sets a terrible example.”

Gary A. Orfield, a prominent desegregation researcher at Harvard University who argues against any dilution of school integration, said the ruling would make it difficult for Charlotte-Mecklenburg officials to maintain any ground gained through desegregation efforts. “Charlotte is one of the most integrated cities in the South, and ... school officials want it to remain that way,” he said, “but they are [now] being prohibited by federal courts.”

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