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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

CMS Segregation Highest In State, Study Says

Lisa Worf/ WFAE
West Charlotte is 99% students of color and 70% economically disadvantage. It was once held up as an example of integration.

For about three decades, beginning in the 1970s, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was a national leader when it came to integration. Now, CMS is the most racially and economically segregated school district in the state, according to a new report. It found that the number of racially and economically segregated schools statewide increased from nearly 300 in 2006 to close to 500 last year.

All Things Considered Host Mark Rumsey talks to WFAE’s Gwendolyn Glenn about the report:

RUMSEY: Gwen, how segregated is CMS?

GLENN:  Mark, CMS does have a racially diverse enrollment—about 38 percent are black, 28 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian and there are other races as well. But the report, produced by the left-leaning North Carolina Justice Center, said CMS would need to reassign 55 percent of students to reach true racial diversity. Increasingly within CMS, we’re seeing students of color and low-income students attending schools where they are in the majority and they are not having much interaction with white and high-income students. The center defines economic and racial segregation as when schools have 75 percent or more low-income students, or 75 percent or more students of color.

Rumsey:  How much worse is CMS when compared to other districts?

Glenn:  Guilford County was right behind Mecklenburg. 41 Guilford County schools were racially segregated 10 years ago, compared to 64 schools last year. CMS was at 85 segregated schools and increased to 104 schools. The report pointed out that the biggest increases are occurring with segregation by income. CMS went from 45 economically segregated schools to 76 schools. As for districts that surround CMS, Cabarrus County has no racially segregated schools, but has three economically segregated schools. Gaston County went from three to six racially segregated schools, and from 10 to 20 economically segregated ones.

Rumsey: So what are some of the consequences here?

Glenn:  Well, as this study and numerous others point out, in integrated settings, the achievement gaps between students of color and white students narrow, and dropout rates decrease. There's also evidence that students become less prejudice, which prepares them as adults to work with people who don’t look like them. In segregated school settings, Matt Ellinwood, who worked on the report, said the opposite happens.

“There was a study that we looked at [that] specifically [examined] the end of some of the integration programs in Charlotte," Ellinwood said. "[The study] showed there has been an increase in racial achievement gaps, arrest rates and black male incarceration rates. That’s consistent with research across the country."

Rumsey:  Gwen, what are some of the reasons given for the increased segregation?

Glenn:  You have to go back a bit to the early 1970s, when Charlotte and other school districts around the country were placed under court-ordered desegregation plans. Charlotte was seen as a leader in successfully desegregating schools, but once they were released from the court order, the system returned to neighborhood school assignments. You have to also remember that Charlotte is segregated in terms of where people live, so with the neighborhood school concept came even more racially and economically segregated schools. Also, when busing ended in 2001, charter schools weren’t around in Charlotte.

Rumsey:  The report cites the influence of charter schools. How are they affecting traditional public schools in terms of segregation?

Glenn:  There are now 173 charter schools statewide and 27 in Mecklenburg County. The report said that exacerbated the problem because so many serve a majority white or black population. Another factor behind the segregation is that charter schools don’t have to provide transportation or free and reduced meals, something many low income students need. Also, other aspects of the charter rules were changed, as Ellinwood pointed out.

“The original law that required charter schools to reasonably reflect the racial composition of the population of the district where they are located was watered down somewhat," Ellinwood said. "So, charter [schools] now must make efforts to achieve demographic parity with the local school district."

Glenn:  He said that’s a loophole, depending on how effort is looked at.

Rumsey:  So what are CMS officials saying about all of this?

Glenn:  I talked to CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox today and he said he wasn’t totally surprised by the report’s findings. He said they came to some of the same conclusions in the equity report the district released last month. 

“There are a lot of people who think the way out of these years of neglect is to pick up some segment of the community and move them. I’m not sure I subscribe to that that,” Wilcox said. “As a school system we can create great schools everywhere and offer different attractive options for parents who want something different than what the traditional school offers. But I’m not sure we can correct for years of housing discrimination and the gentrification of hoods.”

Rumsey:  Did the report offer any solutions?

Glenn:  It called for charter schools to provide transportation, free and reduced meals and for the closure of those that fail to meet set integration goals. Yevonne Brannon, director of Public Schools First NC, also wants more grants provided to create more magnet schools.

"Magnets have been one of the most successful ways to integrate and keep schools from being high poverty,” Brannon said. “These are programs parents can choose and they’re wiling to invest in, whether it’s a bus ride or providing own transportation. They are now a tool that we need to return to with vigor versus the forced reassignment and busing that might not be tolerated by the public. White flight - we’ve seen that over and over again.”

Glenn: CMS did add a few magnet schools when it developed its new student assignment plan but in covering that, parents often pushed back on change. At times those discussions became volatile, so turning this around is going to be a big challenge. 

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.