The Impact of Separate Schools: A North Carolina Story

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October 3, 2016; New Yorker

When the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that separate schools could never be equal, it recognized the intrinsic value and importance of shared experiences that stand separate from academic achievement. Its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education struck down the legal framework that allowed two educational systems to operate concurrently in support of the larger framework of a segregated society. In its wake, courts across the nation pushed and prodded school systems to make the necessary changes to ensure that each child had the opportunity for a quality education in an integrated classroom.

The shooting of Keith Lamont Scott spotlighted race relations in Charlotte, North Carolina. Beyond the questions of whether or not this was a “good” police shooting, we can see how far we still have to go if, indeed, we still believe that separate but equal is not equal at all. Clint Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University writing in the New Yorker, looked at a school system that once was a model of successful integration but today looks as it did pre-Brown.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District relied heavily on busing to restructure its enrollment patterns to ensure all its schools were integrated. Not only were black and white students learning their lessons, they were also learning to live together as one community. Their success in creating an integrated, high-quality district made them a model for other districts. In 1984, the editorial board of the Charlotte Observer saw progress so great that it was a matter of civic pride: “Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s proudest achievement of the past 20 years is not the city’s impressive new skyline or its strong, growing economy. Its proudest achievement is its fully integrated schools.”

All this progress came to an end in 2001 when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the small number of parents who challenged forced busing, ending Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s successful efforts and the mandatory busing program that was at its heart. It was replaced with the “Family Choice Plan,” which allowed a return to a neighborhood school-based enrollment system.

But most neighborhoods in Charlotte are deeply segregated and racially homogenous communities, as a result of decades of housing segregation, and so schools that were once integrated and high-achieving soon became stratified by race and income. In 2005, as part of a case […] brought against the state of North Carolina for its failing school system, Judge Howard Manning…concluded, “The most appropriate way for the Circuit to describe what is going on academically at CMS’s bottom ‘8’ high schools is academic genocide for the at-risk, low-income children.”

Some see this decline as the result of a school system that’s failed in every classroom. Christiane Gibbons, a cofounder of CMS Families for Public Education, which actively works to maintain parental choice and neighborhood schools, told the American Prospect, “What’s really disheartening about all this is that people are making it about ‘us versus them’ and about race and desegregation, but it’s not.” Gibbons thinks that changing student demographics won’t solve anything, and that the focus should be on “improving individual schools through strategies like increasing parent involvement and expanding after-school programming.” But experience and research have “long shown that singularly investing capital into a school in which the vast majority of students live in poverty has limited impact on achievement.”

Researchers have consistently found that students in integrated schools—irrespective of ethnicity, race, or social class—are more likely to make academic gains in mathematics, reading, and often science than they are in segregated ones. Students in integrated K-12 schools are more likely to both enroll in and graduate from college…disadvantaged students—most often poor students of color—receive the most considerable academic benefits from attending diverse schools. […] As the editors of “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” make clear, “Students who attend desegregated schools exhibit greater levels of intergroup friendships, demonstrate lower levels of racial fears and stereotypes, and experience less intergenerational perpetuation of racism and stereotypes across multiple institutional settings.”

Results from Project Lift, a five-year effort to demonstrate that an infusion of resources could overcome the negative impact of segregation, proved to have minimal impact. Carol Sawyer, a co-founder of OneMeck, which has supported a return to an integrated school district, said, “I think Project LIFT is a school reform effort to make segregation work, and it hasn’t.”

While everyone seems to agree that every child is entitled to an equal education and a chance for a successful life, many seem to want to ignore that this is not possible when schools remain segregated.—Martin Levine