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December 20, 2002
Here Comes the Neighborhood
Charlotte and the resegregation of America's public schools.

Charlotte, North Carolina—Darius Swann remembers the blazing cross that illuminated the night sky outside his window at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. The year was 1966, and Swann, an African-American theology professor, had recently initiated a lawsuit against the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system after his 6-year-old son was denied admission to a nearby elementary because he was black. “There’s always a certain amount of danger whenever you take a stand,” says the Presbyterian minister.

Around that time, Swann recalls, the homes of several of the city’s African-American leaders were firebombed. “It drove home the point that such issues were deeply embedded in the psyche of the community,” he says. “People were willing to resort to extreme measures.”

Swann was willing to go pretty far himself. For more than a decade, Swann pursued his case in the courts. The lawsuit that bore his name, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, concluded successfully when a U.S. District Court judge ordered the creation of a more racially diverse school district. Later affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1971, Swann is commonly recognized as the case that “put the teeth” in the earlier Brown v. Board of Education decision by instituting timely and practical ways of combating separate and unequal education, such as busing and race-conscious student assignments. The case changed the face of American education in the 20th century, as the nation’s school districts followed its lead toward increasing integration.

More than two decades later, that face is changing back. A recent study by Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University shows that more than 70 percent of the nation’s African-American students currently attend predominantly minority schools, or schools where more than half the students are minority. (Close to 76 percent of Latinos attend schools with non-white majorities.) Though this growing trend can be attributed, in part, to declining public school enrollment by whites, the study reveals that the typical white public school student is educated in an institution that is 80 percent white.

Since 1995, 45 school districts across the country have been declared “unitary”—that is, sufficiently desegregated—and had their federal desegregation orders rescinded by the courts. Challenges by critics of court-ordered desegregation have sparked recent or ongoing court battles in school districts in a majority of states, including Alabama, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The trend toward resegregation is particularly pronounced in the South, a region where most of the Swann-based remedies for integrating schools were focused. Between 1988 and 1998, the percentage of blacks in majority white schools dropped from 43.5 to 32.7 percent. “There’s something really bad happening,” Orfield told a recent national conference on school resegregation at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “It’s related to race. And it’s getting worse.”

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Charlotte, which less than two decades ago boasted one of the most integrated school systems in the country, is rapidly heading toward resegregation. In 1999, the Swann decision was overturned by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Potter, a busing critic, who declared the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district to be unitary.

The ruling resulted from a lawsuit brought by white advocates of “neighborhood schools”—an assignment model that prioritizes attendance in a student’s own neighborhood. Given that neighborhoods in and around Charlotte, like elsewhere, are largely divided along racial and ethnic lines, neighborhood school models make it virtually impossible for districts to avoid resegregation.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with integrated schools,” says Paul Haisley, a Charlotte accountant and outspoken advocate of neighborhood schools. “But if it means a kid is going to leave his own neighborhood to spend an hour on a school bus each day, is it really worth it? I don’t think so.”

A majority of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board was opposed to Potter’s ruling—including all four African-American members—and it crafted a plan that tried to stem resegregation. The “school choice” plan allows parents to pick from a number of area schools within their “choice zone,” with transportation provided. If they desire a school outside of their zone, they are responsible for their own transportation.

The plan prioritizes school choice for students whose home schools have high concentrations of poor students, and gives more funds to such schools. “Parents were leaving the system,” contends Haisley, referring to the “white flight” commonly associated with increasing minority enrollment in a school district. “This plan was the best way of empowering parents and ensuring they had a choice.”

Many African-Americans are less optimistic. “No community in America has ever been able to achieve separate but equal,” says Arthur Griffin, a member of the school board who opposed the plan and Potter’s ruling. Even with the new plan and a commitment from Charlotte’s education, political and business leadership to equalize funding in majority-black city schools, Griffin believes school resegregation, along with its associated disparities, is just a matter of time. In the year since the plan has been in place, the number of elementary schools with more than 90 percent minority enrollment has already increased from nine to 16.

Orfield’s study provides a broader interpretation. Not unlike the disparities that produced the Brown decision a half-century ago, the nation’s majority-minority schools are commonly “isolated by race and poverty” while offering “vastly unequal educational opportunities” than their majority-white counterparts. This stark reality—based largely in historically segregated housing patterns, white flight and an inequitable reliance on local property taxes for school funding—provides an unhealthy prognosis for a large-scale return to neighborhood schools in African-American communities across the country.

“Philosophically, I support the concept of neighborhood schools,” says Griffin, who feels all students should have quality schools close to home. “Unfortunately, all neighborhoods are not created equal.”

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Percentage of black students in majority white schools. (Source Rethinking Schools, Fall 2001)
They never were. For a decade after the Brown decision in 1954, widespread southern resistance to integration by local school boards kept the vast majority of African-American students in the South in segregated schools. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act stepped up the federal enforcement of desegregation orders and, by 1968, transformed the region into one where a quarter of all southern black students attended majority white schools.

After taking office in 1968, however, President Richard Nixon largely abandoned the enforcement of desegregation requirements, appointing four Supreme Court justices known for their pro-segregation leanings. The court issued a number of key decisions substantially limiting the scope and impact of school desegregation. Keyes v. Denver (1973) hampered plaintiffs in de facto segregated systems by requiring proof of “intentionally segregative school board actions in a meaningful portion of a school system.” Milliken v. Bradley (1974) forbade such inter-district remedies to segregation as transferring students between predominantly black inner-cities and predominantly white suburbs.

Even so, earlier federal and local commitments, combined with the Swann decision, continued the trend toward integration. By 1988, the percentage of African-American students attending majority-white schools in the South peaked near 44 percent.

But this peak also marked a sharp turning point. The number of integrated southern schools steadily declined as a result of strong opposition to desegregation policy from the Reagan administration, which repealed federal desegregation assistance programs and advocated the end of relevant court orders. By the ’90s, Supreme Court appointments by Reagan and George Bush Sr. had created a judicial majority committed to doing just that. In a number of key cases—including Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell and Freeman v. Pitts—the high court elected to end existing desegregation orders by making it easier to declare school systems unitary. It was irrelevant, the court further ruled, if the termination of such orders led to the resegregation of these school systems.

While capitalizing on an increasing political backlash to busing (yet not necessarily to integration), critics have often characterized school desegregation as a failed policy. Sociologist Roslyn Mickelson offers evidence to the contrary. The UNC-Charlotte professor, who spent years examining the academic impact of desegregation and related policies on students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s public schools, found that “the more time both black and white students spent in desegregated elementary schools, the greater their academic achievement.”

Her study highlights the positive effects of a desegregated setting on such current indicators of achievement as high school advanced placements and standardized test scores. It also reveals that “the higher the percent of blacks in a school, the lower the percent of the school’s teachers who are fully credentialed, are experienced, and who possess master’s degrees.”

Mickelson concludes that the likely resegregation of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools “does not bode well for black children’s education prospects.” As the district returns to segregated neighborhood schools, she writes, “we can anticipate that racial antagonisms and racial gaps in achievement and attainment will grow.”

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While most black Charlotte residents say they should have access to good schools in their own neighborhoods, and some of them insist the burden of busing was placed disproportionately on their black children, most are quick to clarify that such sentiment does not reflect abandonment of the ideals of desegregation. “The customary line has been that we need to keep diversity in our schools,” says Blanche Penn, a parent leader and the director of the West Charlotte Community Center. “I haven’t heard anyone say otherwise.”

Apparently, Charlotte residents are still largely committed to the concepts of integration and equity in funding. Griffin and other pro-desegregation African-Americans were recently re-elected to the school board by substantial margins over white advocates of neighborhood schools.

Even so, says Stoney Sellers, a prominent Charlotte businessman and community activist, it’s ultimately a question of limited resources in a rapidly growing city. “At some point, as the growth continues, will the community choose school equity first, or will the money follow the development of all the new schools we’re building?” Sellers asks. “Seven to 10 years down the road, how will our communities look then?”

“I am more concerned that a child is succeeding rather than if that child is in a diverse setting or not,” says Lindalyn Kakadelis, a former school board member and teacher in Charlotte, who argues that diversity is an imprecise term “since we’re almost at a point in America where white is a minority.” Kakadelis says “the bottom line is student achievement,” and she’s “so tired of people making excuses” for low achievers and acting like “victims” of poverty and other social ills. “What I’m for,” she adds, is “pushing everybody to succeed in their own schools.”

“We know it’s not just about integration or sitting in the same classrooms with whites,” Sellers counters. His concerns are educational quality, the distribution of resources and academic achievement. “School desegregation wouldn’t have meant much if there had been no impact on educational achievement.”

“If we had the money, the certified teachers and everything we needed in our neighborhood schools, then I wouldn’t have a problem with segregated schools,” Penn says. “But we know that’s not going to happen. The resources follow the folks with the money.”

For Penn, it’s back to the future. “Putting kids back in neighborhood schools brings back memories,” she says, recalling her own experiences as a teen-age student at all-black West Charlotte High. “We got all the old, leftover books.” She quickly adds that the African-American community “doesn’t want leftovers.”

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Swann, who no longer lives in Charlotte, acknowledges the irony of his desire 30 years ago for his son to attend a white school in his own neighborhood. He contends that, for African-Americans, neighborhood schools are less significant because neighborhoods now reflect “proximity as opposed to a real community. A lot of people don’t even know their neighbors.”

Even so, without solutions to the current trend, African-Americans could find themselves with leftovers again. But despite the increasingly conservative tone of the country and its judicial system, new attempts at maintaining diversity in the public schools are afoot. A number of systems—including North Carolina’s Wake County Schools, which includes Raleigh, the capital—are considering socioeconomic status in school assignments. In San Francisco, schools are using a “diversity index” that accounts for economic status, parental education levels and the number of languages spoken at a student’s home. Similar approaches are being tried in Manchester, Connecticut, and La Crosse, Wisconsin.

But for some there’s a bottom line. “Integrated neighborhoods produce integrated schools,” says Steve Johnston, executive director of the Charlotte-based Swann Fellowship. The nonprofit organization, named for Swann and his wife Vera, was formed in 1997 to advance the value of diversity in public education.

Johnston contends that until white people and the institutions they control pay equitable wages to people of color and allow for the kind of educational institutions that can produce economic parity, the onus will always be on whites to make neighborhoods and schools integrated. “Economic diversity in housing patterns will create diverse schools,” he says.

To Johnston, the solution is simple. “We can wait until we’re all brown, or we can work at living together.”

Swann adds: “I believe that the public school is the most important element in the transformation of a society. If the schools can change, then so can it.”

Damien Jackson is a writer in North Carolina. This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship for Journalists of Color, a project sponsored by the Independent Press Association.


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