By Pamela Grundy
In recent weeks, as the CMS school board wrestled with a superintendent search, a clear split emerged. White board members supported extending the contract of current superintendent and longtime CMS employee Ann Clark. Black members favored an immediate search for a replacement. Behind-the-scenes efforts to fashion a compromise did not succeed.
This divide was rooted not simply in race, but in history. As the board and the community seek to move forward, it is important to understand what that history reveals about the challenges ahead, particularly the role that money and influence have played in perpetuating unequal educational opportunities for low-income students of color.
Julius Chambers, who argued Charlotte’s landmark Swann desegregation lawsuit, did not believe that black children would magically learn more if they sat next to white children. Rather, he believed in the hard reality of political power – that schools would only offer equal opportunities if they all enrolled students from communities able to ensure their children were not shortchanged. In the 1960 and 1970s, when political and economic power was held primarily by whites, that meant white communities.
“As I view it, the only way that we can obtain quality education for all children, black and white, is to accomplish racial mixing of students in the various schools.” Chambers told the U.S. Senate in the spring of 1971. Without white children in every school, he said, “I don’t think that those who are now in power would provide the facilities and services that would be necessary in order to accomplish equal educational programs.”
Subsequent events have confirmed the wisdom of Chambers’ analysis. During both desegregation and resegregation, the pull of wealth and influence have meant that CMS schools that have enrolled students from wealthier and more powerful communities have regularly offered greater educational opportunities than those that served students from less influential communities.
Desegregation did indeed spread power and resources more evenly, producing across-the-board improvement in student performance. But its effects were complicated by the county’s rapid growth. Even as buses carried students to desegregated schools, a combination of market forces and political decisions sparked new divisions. Developers built dozens of neighborhoods at the edges of the county, most targeted at at middle and upper-income homebuyers. The rush to the suburbs, along with city and county housing policies, concentrated low-income housing in central city and middle ring neighborhoods.
By the 1980s, these disparities had created significant differences between schools. In 1988, for example, a Charlotte Observer report revealed the challenges faced by Harding, Garinger and West Mecklenburg high schools.
While the schools were racially desegregated, they served especially high percentages of low-income students. They offered fewer advanced courses, had fewer electives such as drama or Latin, and employed less-experienced teachers than their better-off counterparts. Harding had been through six principals in eight years. Two of those principals had been transferred to Harding after failing to satisfy parents at South Mecklenburg and Myers Park.
Former school superintendent Jay Robinson did not mince words about the link between parent influence and educational opportunities. “At a school where parents are less vocal and not in a position to be strong advocates, there is a tendency not to look after their needs as you might,” he told Observer reporters.
Fast-forward to 2010. Busing for desegregation has ended, and CMS has dramatically resegregated. Many center-city and middle ring schools are populated almost entirely by low-income children of color. The school board has attempted to address the challenges of concentrated poverty through programs such as weighted and strategic staffing. But the gaps between high-poverty and low-poverty schools have widened dramatically, not only in student performance, but in teacher experience, staff stability, course offerings and extracurricular opportunities.
Superintendent Peter Gorman proposes to consolidate several high-poverty middle and elementary schools into five K-8 schools. He also recommends eliminating or consolidating several magnet programs, including Montessori and traditional, which are popular with well-off CMS families.
All the affected communities rise up against the changes. The proposed K-8s, whose small populations ensure that they will provide narrower course offerings and fewer enrichment opportunities than traditional middle schools, receive especially sharp critique.
The CMS response leaves no doubt that some voices have more influence than others. The proposed changes to Montessori and traditional magnets are quickly scrapped. The school board approves the K-8 plans. It passes several other changes – most notably to Waddell and Harding high schools – that primarily affect low-income communities of color. Five years later, all the reconfigured schools continue to struggle, as do most of the high-poverty schools created when CMS resegregated.
Ann Clark should not be blamed for the decisions of previous boards or superintendents. But is it any wonder that school board members who come from or have close ties to the affected communities find change in leadership more appealing than continuity?
If the board, superintendent and community are to overcome these thorny problems, we must build greater trust. We must genuinely listen to each other. We must face the hard reality of the inequities that currently plague CMS schools, and the multiple obstacles to providing genuinely equal opportunities. If concerns about the school board split can start those hard but necessary discussions, bringing that disagreement into public view will have served a useful purpose.