May 16, Progressive Party with Sen. Schumer Get tickets

Returning Home to an Odd Mixture of Progress and Retreat

West Charlotte High School students leave a bus on May 15, 1972.

I returned last month to my childhood hometown for what turned out to be a bittersweet reunion with my memories.

I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina, a booming city of glimmering Uptown skyscrapers and sprawling verdant suburban neighborhoods. It is nothing close to the place where I recall growing up and coming of age some 40 years ago, which is both a good and a bad thing.

What’s grand about Charlotte is that it has achieved its ambitions of becoming a world-class city, a place that both hosted a successful Democratic National Convention in 2012 and can boast about its relatively new museums and art galleries, the likes of which didn’t favorably compare or exist when I was a child.

But for all that is on the upswing in the Queen City, there is something rotting at its core. The consolidated city-county schools have lumbered backward, segregating once again by race and class, producing separate and unequal outcomes for the district’s more than 144,000 students in 164 schools.

“There is an elephant in Charlotte’s living room and it’s looking fairly comfortable,” the Rev. John Cleghorn, pastor of Charlotte’s Caldwell Presbyterian Church, wrote in a recent op-ed for The Charlotte Observer, the city’s daily newspaper. That unwelcome visitor, as Cleghorn described it, represents what Charlotte has lost despite a glitzy veneer. He wrote:

Once a national model for school integration, Charlotte schools have regressed perhaps more than any other major city in the U.S.

Today, one in three of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools is isolated by class—meaning at least 80 percent of their students live in poverty. One half of our schools are isolated by race—meaning at least 80 percent of their students are of one race. In one in five schools, 95 percent of students are all of one race, termed “hypersegregation.”

Charlotte’s retreat from desegregation is notable because, at one time, we soared higher than any other community. So our plummet is a greater, steeper disappointment. Yes, Charlotte has lost a lot.

I don’t get back home very often. I haven’t kept up with the regressions in public policies and attitudes that have led to a full-scale retreat from what used to be high aspirations of a quality education for every schoolkid. So last month, I jumped at Cleghorn’s invitation to speak with a couple hundred people—a collection of civic, religious, and community activists—who gathered for a panel discussion to rally public support for ending the schools’ unequal outcomes for students. I learned a great deal during a very short visit.

“We’re talking about equality of opportunity, giving every child an equal chance to succeed,” said James Ford of the Public School Forum of North Carolina. Ford was named North Carolina’s 2014-15 teacher of the year as a history teacher at Garinger High School, my old alma mater. “We’re going to make sure that isolation is no longer a factor for students of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,” he told a cheering group.

The community forum came about in response to a recent school board decision to revise its student assignment plan with the goal of leveling off the concentrations of poverty that plague some schools, mostly those in the black neighborhoods at the inner core of Charlotte. At present, the board seems flummoxed over how to do that, considering such ideas as expanding magnet schools and rejecting any suggestion that smacks of returning to a bus-based plan.

The ironic thing about the good civic image and bad school policy that coexists uneasily in Charlotte is that one feeds off the other. During the 1980s and 1990s, led by a go-go banking industry, the city grew bigger than its britches, partly because it lured affluent and business-minded people who were attracted by its Southern charm and good schools. New neighborhoods sprang up at Mecklenburg County’s extreme northern and southern boundaries to house the influx of newcomers. Tax dollars flowed into new schools and retreated from older, inner-city schools, which suffered from neglect.

The newly minted Charlotte residents never understood what they perceived as old Charlotte’s fetish with busing children across town. In 1997, a group of six parents filed suit to take the wheels off the buses and to allow for a neighborhood school plan that would, over time, resegregate the public schools.

The death knell for school busing came in 1999, when U.S. District Judge Robert D. Potter ruled that the city-county schools had “eliminated, to the extent practicable, the vestiges of past discrimination in the traditional areas of school operations.” Potter’s ruling effectively reversed Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision that had approved busing students away from segregated neighborhoods in order to achieve a racial balance in public schools.

Busing has always been a nasty word in Charlotte, even when I was a student back in the early 1970s. Unpopular court orders led to busing plans for school desegregation, upending generations of separate and unequal education for black and white students. It was a turbulent time in the city’s history, but the busing effort worked to equalize the resources available in all schools. In effect, when white kids were bused in, schools in black neighborhoods received the same level of supplies, teaching instruction, and resources as the white schools across the district.

Of course, it wasn’t easy. Parents objected to the loss of neighborhood schools, which were—similar to the communities that surrounded them—segregated by race and class. Black kids, like me, bore the burnt of long bus rides across the county to previously all-white schools. Acrimonious school board meetings and school yard fist fights were as much annual rites of passage as dogwoods blooming in the spring.

I didn’t enjoy my time at Garinger High. But I also learned a great deal, far more than I would have in an all-black school with inferior resources. Indeed, as horrible as that experience seemed at the time, it prepared me for life in the multicultural world that I have known all my adult life.

Now, nearly 15 years after the Potter decision, Charlotte’s schools are more segregated than at any time since Swann. According to a report in The Charlotte Observer, “just over half of CMS students qualify for lunch subsidies to low-income families,” and in the 2013-14 school year, the most recent for which figures are available, “61 of 157 schools had poverty levels of 75 percent or higher” and “fourteen of those were at 90 percent or higher.”

Simply stated, these numbers mean that Charlotte has too many schools with large numbers of poor kids. Anyone who knows anything about public education understands that high-poverty schools correlate positively with poor student achievement and outcomes.

Nostalgia floods my memories of Charlotte. I recall my school years as rough and tumble but a period of growing pains that offered me an opportunity for later success in career and life. I want that for every student who now attends my hometown’s schools.

Over the coming weeks and months, as civic leaders gather in Charlotte’s churches, board rooms, and community centers, the entire community has an opportunity to chart a promising future that can stand up favorably with the city’s brilliant skyline. They can guide that elephant out of the living room.

I’m hoping that my old hometown will rally together, summon the will, and finish the difficult task of providing equitable education for all of its students.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.