As segregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools perpetuates, integration advocates keep rounding back to one root problem: the definition of a “good” school.
When parents seek out indicators of a decent school for their kids, they look at test scores, graduation rates and — in some cases — racial composition, according to UNC Charlotte professor Roslyn Mickelson, who specializes in the sociology of education, culture, race and gender, focusing largely on CMS’s history.
After court-ordered desegregation ended at CMS in the early 2000s, families in Charlotte began moving neighborhoods based on the district’s new, proximity-based pupil assignment system. Mickelson’s research indicates that at the time, white families who moved appeared to prioritize schools with whiter student populations over those with high performance scores.
“Whiteness is a proxy for a superior school,” Mickelson said. “Giving people the benefit of the doubt that they’re not just outright racist, they’re equating whiteness with brightness.”
Justin Perry, who co-chairs grassroots organization OneMECK, called this belief that a white school is a brighter school “a false narrative,” and said it’s the driving force behind continued segregation at CMS. The reality, he argued, is that parents can’t choose between a quality education and a diverse student body — they must choose both.
“You can’t have quality education if you don’t have diversity in this evolving community,” Perry said. “I think we should have a more holistic understanding of what a good school is, and don’t just subscribe to the simple, ‘What’s the average test score there?'”
Carol Sawyer, representative for District 4 of the CMS Board of Education, took Perry’s stance a step further.
“There’s abundant data that your affluent, white kid will be fine in a high-poverty school,” Sawyer said, “and that they will learn important stuff about the world that they couldn’t learn in an affluent, white school, and that they will also receive the academic instruction that they need.”
However, as long as CMS parents continue equating performance scores, graduation rates and racial composition with schools’ overall quality, racial and socioeconomic segregation will thrive in the district. One of the most impactful results of this narrative — and a threat to the possibility of integration at CMS moving forward — is North Carolina’s charter school boom.
CHARTERS: THE ‘NEW WHITE FLIGHT ACADEMIES?’
In 2011, North Carolina lawmakers lifted a law that capped the state’s charter schools at 100. Since then, the state’s charters have increased to 173, and their student populations have more than doubled in size, pivoting charters schools’ role in the state education system.
Mickelson said charter schools were originally popular among black families who felt their local schools weren’t good enough.
“After the lifting of the cap,” Mickelson said, “it switched, and now the majority of North Carolina charter students are white, and there’s a fair amount of reason to think that families who are choosing charters are doing so because they want to avoid the public schools which they perceive as too black or brown.”
Charter schools are free and public, but they function independently of traditional public school districts. Charters operate with more freedom and tend to offer increased learning opportunities over typical public schools, encouraging nontraditional teaching methods and often working under the management of for-profit companies, rather than elected officials.
Though charters are free, some diversity advocates — like Justin Perry — claim the schools inherently discriminate against low-income students because they are not required to provide transportation or free or reduced-price lunches for students living in poverty.
“Now you basically have government-supported private schools, because by the fact you don’t offer lunch, you don’t offer transportation and things like that, you’re already weeding out a good chunk of the population,” Perry said.
Sawyer added that since charter schools have increased in North Carolina, they’ve only given affluent families more leverage against public school districts in the state.
“Charter schools are the new white flight academy,” she said.
CHARTER SCHOOLS BY THE NUMBERS
Charter schools in North Carolina are indeed whiter than traditional public schools, but the difference isn’t particularly staggering. A 2018 report from North Carolina’s state education board showed that while white students in traditional public schools composed 48.6 percent of the overall student population, those in charters composed 55.8 percent. Black students saw similar numbers at traditional public and charter schools, representing 25.5 percent and 26.2 percent of their respective student populations.
The largest discrepancy existed among Hispanic students, who composed 17.3 percent of traditional public school populations in North Carolina, but only 9.2 percent of charter student populations.
Socioeconomic segregation proved more prevalent among charter schools, whose student populations comprised only 30.6 percent economically disadvantaged students, whereas economically disadvantaged students made up 50.4 percent of student populations in traditional public schools statewide.
Recent legislation threatens to exacerbate this issue. North Carolina’s House Bill 514, which passed through the House in June 2018, would allow four Mecklenburg County municipalities to raise and use taxes to fund their own charter schools. Typically, charter admissions don’t consider student proximity, but HB 514 would allow the municipalities in question — specifically, the majority-white suburban towns of Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius — to prioritize local students in their admissions.
“Municipal charters are particularly destructive because they’re an attack on the unified status of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,” Sawyer said. “It’s a backdoor way to break up the district and to create charter districts that are overwhelmingly white.”
None of the municipalities involved in HB 514 have drafted plans to build charters under this legislation yet, but Sawyer said the bill gives affluent suburban families more power over CMS, should the school board redraw pupil assignment boundaries in the future and assign suburban students to higher-poverty schools.
Jeremy Stephenson, a Charlotte attorney who ran for CMS school board in 2015, argued that the tension surrounding HB 514 is “significantly overblown.”
“[The bill] gives the municipalities the opportunity to do this. None of them have acted on it, none of them have said it will be acted on at any point in the future,” Stephenson said. “No one has yet to show how even if they did enact such a charter, it would change the current makeup of schools in these towns one iota.”
He pointed out that if Matthews opened a charter school that gave priority to students in Matthews, the school’s demographic makeup would presumably resemble that of Butler High School.
“The idea that somehow that would alter CMS fundamentally, I just don’t see how that logically makes sense,” Stephenson said.
AN UNATTAINABLE GOAL?
From Stephenson’s perspective, the inherent benefits of racial integration don’t matter if integration isn’t feasible in the first place — and as long as white, affluent families in CMS refuse to send their children to majority-minority, high-poverty schools, integration is simply not going to happen.
“How are you going to get those parents to send their kids to a school that’s lower-performing and convince them that it’s in their best interest?” Stephenson said.
He added that as long as education activists in Charlotte continue to preach diversity as a goal in and of itself without actually articulating how the district might achieve it, local families will feel angst toward student assignment practices and the school board’s agenda.
“It doesn’t help that that angst is pitched as bigotry, white flight, everything that is wrong with America,” Stephenson said. “If we have children in situations where they are not receiving academic excellence, then we need to drill down on that as hard as we can. But to say that diversity is an end in and of itself, divorced from academic excellence, you are going to lose people who you can’t afford to lose.”
Mickelson credited perspectives like Stephenson’s to the popular idea that test scores, college enrollment rates and other numerical data can adequately indicate the quality of a school. She said this idea is a misconception, widespread and permitted because diversity advocates aren’t doing their jobs.
“Proponents of diverse schools have not done a good job of making the case that diverse schools are superior to segregated schools,” Mickelson said.
A LOSE-LOSE SITUATION
Perry argued that segregation harms students on both sides of the fence, in more ways than one. He said his experience working as a therapist in Charlotte has revealed that some of CMS’s most affluent schools also have the worst problems with drug addiction, eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal ideation.
“When I talk about why segregation is harmful, I don’t just talk about it being harmful for black and brown students,” Perry said. “I don’t just talk about it for poor students. I talk about it being harmful for white and affluent students.”
He said it’s impossible to achieve a high-quality education in a bubble, even if the school in question does appear high-performing. CMS families should stop viewing the concept of sending their children to high-poverty schools as a “sacrifice,” Perry said, when sending them to homogenous, disproportionately wealthy schools may in fact be a larger sacrifice.
“The days of just being in the right neighborhood, right school, right church, right country club, right fraternity, and being set for life — you can still be able to be successful, but the idea that that’s going to get you to the top of the chain — those days are leaving behind,” Perry said. “I’m not asking you to sacrifice your kid. I’m asking you to stop sacrificing your kid.”