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

CMS Lawsuit Prompts Questions: Why Are All Plaintiffs White?

Natalie and Nick Foy
Nick and Natalie Foy's 8-year-old son does remote lessons from home.

A lawsuit seeking to force Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to bring students back to schools is raising questions about white parents who say they’re standing up for communities of color. 

The lawsuit filed earlier this month by five CMS parents cites a case for in-person classes that’s being made across the nation: Children are at relatively low risk for catching and spreading COVID-19. Keeping them home endangers their mental and physical health and their academic progress.

But one part of the 22-page document in particular is drawing fire from some quarters. It’s the section that asserts that “the digital divide created by remote learning harms students and in particular socioeconomically disadvantaged and minority students.”

Few would argue with the accuracy of that statement. Educators and policymakers across the country worry that the loss of in-person classes will do the deepest harm to the students who are already behind, those who lack internet connections and whose whose families don’t have time and money to supplement online lessons.

'Racially Homogeneous Group'

But people like Justin Perry question whether five white parents are sincere about fighting for students of color and poverty – or entitled to speak for them.

"To me it just illustrated the huge divide that there’s been nationally, regionally and everything else in terms of perspective on the pandemic," he says.

Perry is co-founder of OneMeck, a group that works for educational equity. He’s also Black. And when an internet search led him to conclude that all five plaintiffs are white and appear to be financially secure, he took to Facebook to question their motives. Why, he asked, were they not joined by anyone from the communities they cite as most endangered?

"To have the lawsuit launched by a racially homogenous, upper middle-class group of plaintiffs didn’t sit well," Perry says.

His post has been shared more than 250 times. Dee Rankin, chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus’ education committee, compared this suit to one filed by white CMS parents in the 1990s that led to school resegregation. Denise Watts, a former high-ranking CMS administrator, called the new lawsuit “the epitome of privilege.”

Perry, who’s the father of an elementary school student, agrees that remote learning isn’t ideal for anyone. But he says the plaintiffs should consider that not only are people of color hit hardest by the loss of in-person classes, but by the virus itself. Black and Hispanic people are disproportionately likely to get COVID-19 and to die from it.

"They keep talking about what is the impact on children by themselves," Perry says. "Well, children go home to parents, and a lot of times poor, Black and brown children also, we live with extended families. So you have grandparents there, you have older folks who are susceptible."

'We Have Options, Others Don't'

Natalie and Nick Foy are the parents who got the lawsuit started. They had two children at Dilworth Elementary when remote learning began in March. One is still there, learning from home. But they say their 6-year-old wasn’t doing well so they moved her to St. Patrick Catholic School this year.

"The reality is for families like ours is we have options, we have choices, and we can afford to do something different with our kids if we feel like there’s a better place for them other than remote learning environments," Nick Foy says. "And for the vast majority of families in our district, that just isn’t a reality."

Nick Foy says he started trying to work within the system to encourage CMS to return to in-person classes.

"I had lobbied the board directly and I had sent a letter actually to the governor and to the board, and I had interactions with a lot of the board members after that," he recalls.

But he says a series of board decisions made this summer, some of which seemed to stem from behind-the-scenes negotiations, prompted the Foys to look for ways to demand more accountability.

David Redding, an attorney who has three children in CMS, agreed to file the suit at no charge. Three others joined as plaintiffs. 

Doing The Work Of Racial Justice

And yes, they are all white.

"I totally understand – I think visually it’s probably not a good look from that perspective and I wish it didn’t look like that," Nick Foy says.

But, he says, "my wife and I have invested a lot of time and a lot of money in causes to support people that don’t look like us. And that’s really important to us, so this isn’t like it’s our first rodeo on something like that."

The Foys say their suit wouldn't force any students into settings their families consider unsafe, because CMS gave everyone the option to enroll in a Full Remote Academy.

The Foys say of course they want what’s best for their own children, but also what’s best for those from other backgrounds. Natalie Foy says this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests drove home the importance of standing up for equity.

"At that point we said it’s time for white people to do the work, and me being part of this lawsuit is doing some work to stand up for kids who are disadvantaged and who don’t have the resources or the options that my kids do," she says.

Perry, the critic from OneMeck, says he that doesn’t mesh with his take on the Black Lives Matter message.

"Doing the work, for somebody who is white with resources, means that you’re following the lead of folks that are more impacted, and you’re following the lead of people who have more of a lens on what you say that you’re advocating for, than what you think in your own individual brain or heart," Perry says.

Education Rights Vs. Public Health

The suit says CMS is violating students’ right to a sound basic education, which is guaranteed in North Carolina’s constitution. It names the school board, the board chair, the superintendent and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, whose members lobbied for CMS to open with all remote classes.

Neither CMS nor the association’s president would comment on a pending suit. Allison Schafer, legal counsel for the North Carolina School Boards Association, isn’t directly involved, but she says she’d be surprised if the plaintiffs prevail.

"I don’t believe the courts will second-guess what is basically a public health issue," she says.

Schafer says CMS is the only district in the state facing a legal challenge like this, but it’s among several that chose an all-remote “Plan C” opening. That’s one of two options allowed by Gov. Roy Cooper, along with a “Plan B” that brings students back with social distancing. Schaffer says health officials have the authority to close schools or limit attendance.

"It’s hard to override the health of and wellbeing of others legally," she says. "You just can’t do that. "

Will Meeting Change Things?

David Redding, the lawyer who filed the suit, said Monday he’s waiting for all the parties to be served to see what happens next. He and the Foys say additional families want to join the suit.

Meanwhile, Redding says they’ll all be watching to see what the CMS board does at a special meeting Wednesday. The board is scheduled to vote on a plan for transitioning into Plan B in-person classes.

"If they’re actively considering how to get kids back in the classroom, then I think my clients would consider that progress," Redding says. But he adds that specific metrics are essential. "If it was objective and measurable and made sense, I mean, hopefully we wouldn’t have to go any further."

The board meeting starts at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Superintendent Earnest Winston has talked about bringing back the youngest students and those with special needs first, with a schedule that offers a mix of remote and in-person classes.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.