Innovation in Education Stirs Controversy

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December 19, 2010; Source: Los Angeles Times | An odd juxtaposition of contradictory interpretations of education in Charlotte, N.C. brings the actions of a prominent national foundation to the forefront.

Earlier this year, in a high profile event attended by Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the Broad Foundation based in Los Angeles gave $250,000 to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for its ranking among the top five large school districts “that have improved learning for poor children and children of color.”  According to Broad, it was the district’s “innovations” that won the grant award.

Not long afterwards, the majority white Charlotte Mecklenberg school board, presiding over a district that is 33 percent white, closed 10 schools whose student populations were 95 percent African-American and Latino. Protests prior to and following the school board vote involved hundreds of residents and led to the arrest of the local head of the NAACP at one meeting.

Charlotte’s school integration efforts, in response to the 1971 Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education court decision, were closely watched across the nation, with a federal judge finally ruling in 1999 that the district had eliminated “the vestiges of past discrimination.” Once the parents were freed from busing and allowed to send kids to neighborhood schools, however, the schools quickly re-segregated.

To overcome gaps between minority and non-minority student performance, the district created a program to get high performing principals to take reassignments in low-performing schools and altered the student/teacher staffing ratio to give more weight to poor students. Those were among the innovations lauded by the Broad Foundation, but white board members argued that those innovations deprived majority white suburban schools of “star principals” and led to “overstuffed classrooms because of the lopsided spending on poor students.”

Despite the Broad Foundation award, Charlotte school board debates reverberate with the acrimony that many residents remember from the school desegregation efforts that led to the Swann busing program. This is the nub of a challenge for foundations like Broad committed to social change. It is possible to identify technical innovations that the experts think are worthwhile and laudatory, but sometimes fundamentally contentious social, economic, and racial dynamics intervene.—Rick Cohen

  • Pamela Grundy

    As a parent of a child in a high-poverty Charlotte-Mecklenburg school, I’d like to note that one reason that community members were angry about school closings was that neither CMS staff or board members made a convincing case that the students at the closed schools would be moved to better situations. It remains unclear that the top-down “reforms” lauded by the Broad Foundation (other than the smaller classes made possible by weighted staffing) are in fact the answer to the educational challenges our community faces. In addition, the decision also reinforced suspicions that the district is moving to a system that offers one kind of education for kids in low-income neighborhoods and another kind for kids in higher-income neighborhoods. This isn’t the kind of “reform” that our community needs.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Pamela: That was very well said, thank you. I’d love to hear from other Charlotte-Meckenburg district parents regarding their take about this controversy. Thanks very much for adding to the dialogue.


  • Tony LoRe

    Thanks for this article and the awareness that it will raise.

    There is something terribly wrong with a culture when we can’t offer ALL youth the quality education they need, unless they are wealthy. This is true of poor white children as well as poor minority youth. However, because minorities are disproportionately lower income earners it affects our minority communities more.

    We have replaced legally enforced segregation of the 50

  • rick cohen

    Thanks for the comment, Tony. I’d like to see this generate more debate, particularly around issues not only of the racial gap, but the wealth gap. The latest Pew public opinion survey I saw found that most Americans believe that the gap in our society between rich and poor is widening. That’s not an income-specific answer, but a response based on conditions and (the lack of) social justice. Most of that plays out in our public schools. The challenge isn’t just what do we “name” the policies and outcomes that you describe, but what do we do as a society–and what do we do as nonprofits. Thanks, and keep reading NPQ.

  • David Cearley

    I would argue that the structure of social aid to poor families has contributed greatly to the deterioration of two parent families. The dramatic shift in family structure to the current majority of poor homes being single parent households is responsible for the sub par performance of poor or minority students. The class or economic “racism” you speak of doesn’t appear to apply to traditional two parent poor or minority households. In other words, the social safety net of the Great Society has caused tremendous harm to our poor communities, just as artifically inflated minimum wages have destroyed employment for our youth.

  • ChrisB

    From an Australian perspective, the problem is having your schools paid for at the local level rather than (at least) statewide. On another level, to anticipate responses, the problem is that Americans think that there way of doing these things just has to be the best and aren’t willing to consider fundamental changes.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Chris: Thanks for raising the issue of the structure of American public schools, both their hyperlocal administrative dynamic and their dependence on local (generally property tax) financing. Some people think that the resource differences among school systems is not a significant factor–or a factor at all–in the differential performances and outcomes among schools. It would be interesting to have NPQ readers weigh in on the issue of school finance as it relates to this discussion. Thanks for your comments Chris.