It is back-to-school time for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
For many children, particularly those entering CMS for the first time in kindergarten, it is a time of anticipation and excitement. The future is full of hope.
But for too many other children in CMS, particularly those returning to schools with high concentrations of poverty, it is a time of difficulty and risk. The future is full of doubt.
This is not the fault of CMS or of the administrators, teachers, and other staff in our public schools. CMS is not failing our children, our neighborhoods, and our community; we are failing our public schools and their staff by asking them to cure the non-educational problems of our society and by not providing them the resources to do the job.
When we talk about the challenges facing teachers and students in our community’s “socioeconomically isolated” public schools without also talking about the skin color of the children affected, we are perpetuating a euphemism that ignores the truth of our social structure. Our community’s high-poverty public schools are also racially identifiable, populated primarily, and in many cases almost exclusively, by children of color.
The correlation of poverty and skin color in our public schools is not an accident: it is the product of more than 300 years of deliberate social engineering in colonial America and the United States designed to limit the opportunity of non-white people, including the opportunity for education. This is a racial wrong for which only a racial remedy will suffice.
The Brown decision took a first step in the right direction in 1954, but the implementation of that decision “with all deliberate speed” was slow and resisted at every step. During the delay, the institutionalization of white advantage continued, and our community fought in court to continue to segregate our public schools.
We finally began to desegregate our public schools in the early 1970’s only after the US Supreme Court upheld Federal District Court Judge James McMillan’s 1969 decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. Charlotte used to tout itself as “the city that made desegregation work,” but even before longtime desegregation opponent Federal District Court Judge Robert Potter’s 1999 decision that CMS was “unitary” – meaning he determined that the effects of our community’s past deliberate segregation had been eliminated– the desegregation of CMS had begun to break down as a result of a number of factors, including the construction of schools in rapidly-growing, far-flung, affluent, and overwhelmingly white suburbs and the diffusion of magnet programs into those schools.
Since desegregation ended in 2002, Charlotte’s former claim to success has now been eclipsed by the rapidity and completeness of the re-segregation of our public schools. The ill effects of the re-segregation of CMS on our children and our community are well-documented in Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and Re-segregation in Charlotte, by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, Stephen Samuel Smith, and Amy Hawn Nelson (Feb. 2015, Harvard Education Press).
In the 13 years since our community began to implement Judge Potter’s decision, an entire generation of students has had time to start kindergarten and finish 12th grade in racially-identifiable, high-poverty schools. We are about to impose on our children just entering kindergarten this year the same difficulty and risk.
There are signs that perhaps our community is ready to try again to do what is right for all of our children in our public schools. Our current Board of Education has recognized the difficulty and risk faced by our children who are assigned to racially identifiable, high-poverty schools. They have begun to talk again about the possibility of a new student assignment plan that reduces those concentrations and improves opportunity. The Opportunity Task Force is talking about these same subjects more broadly in our neighborhoods. There is an election this fall that could move those discussions forward towards action.
We must seize this new momentum to move from talk to action. We must not tell another generation of our community’s children to wait to share a future full of hope. As the Chilean poet-educator Gabriela Mistral wrote, “Many things we need can wait. The child cannot. Now is the time his bones are formed, his mind developed. To him we cannot say tomorrow, his name is today.” Imagine the possibilities for our children if we would go ahead and exercise the will to do for them what we know works – what we know is right.