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.
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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