Equity & Diversity

In Wake of Ruling, Charlotte Votes To Drop Choice Plan

By Alan Richard — December 13, 2000 3 min read
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The Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school board has voted to drop a new student-assignment plan in the wake of a ruling by a federal appeals court.

The 2-1 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., declaring that the district was not yet desegregated came as district officials were preparing to put a school choice plan in place. (“Charlotte-Mecklenburg Not Yet Desegregated, Court Rules,” Dec. 6, 2000.)

Board members voted 5-4 on Dec. 1 to scrap that plan, which was to begin next fall. They also canceled a showcase set for the next day that would have provided parents their first opportunity to pick a school under the “family choice plan.”

“The school district had come up with a very progressive and impressive student-assignment plan, which it then met and scrapped,” said Bill S. Helfand, a Houston lawyer representing white parents who in 1997 challenged the district’s use of busing and magnet programs to desegregate schools. That lawsuit, by parents who said their children were denied enrollment in magnet programs based on their race, was later broadened to question the district’s entire desegregation plan.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Robert D. Potter of Charlotte issued an injunction that stopped the race-based assignments. He required the establishment of a new assignment system and declared the district “unitary,” or free of the vestiges of a dual education system for blacks and whites.

The parents who challenged Charlotte’s integration strategies now must decide whether to fight the Nov. 30 appellate court ruling, a path that eventually could take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mr. Helfand said he wants to appeal the three-judge panel’s decision. He noted that the dissenting judge’s opinion maintained that Charlotte-Mecklenburg could be declared “unitary” because there was no concrete evidence, such as written documents, that proved intentional discrimination based on race.

The 103,000-student district includes the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

‘Big Set of Problems’

For the district, which had not sought to be freed from court supervision, the appeals court decision was a mixed bag.

Some school board members who had opposed the school choice plan, but were obligated to follow the lower court’s order, were pleased. But the district can’t return to its previous integration plan, because the appellate panel said the district had allowed a dual system to remain in the areas of student assignments to schools, the location of campuses, transportation policies, and achievement levels.

Black students, for example, are bused more often than their white peers, and facilities spending may be inequitable, the court held. The district is about to renovate buildings throughout Charlotte and Mecklenburg County with money from a new bond issue.

The representatives of the parents who first asserted that the district’s schools were segregated also have a say in the case.

Luke Largess, a local lawyer who represents those black parents, said his clients believe the decision will lead to the fairer treatment of black students.

“They would like to see a commitment by the school system to providing equal facilities across this county, and a plan that sort of promoted continued integration of the schools rather than promoted segregation,” Mr. Largess said. “That’s not the direction we were going in last week.”

The appellate court’s reversal of such a clear lower-court order shows the diversity of judicial opinion in desegregation cases, said Gary Orfield, a Harvard University expert on desegregation who supports integration strategies such as mandatory busing.

While some judges are looking for proof of intent to discriminate or to run a dual educational system, others see discriminatory practices—regardless of motive—as unlawful, Mr. Orfield noted.

“It’s not very hard, in any interracial school district, to see there are problems,” he said. “Just walk into a school and see who’s in which classrooms. We have a big set of problems in this country, and they have not gone away yet.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as In Wake of Ruling, Charlotte Votes To Drop Choice Plan

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