This week, the South slid backward, returning to the segregationist era of separate and unequal schools.
Or at least that's what you'd believe if you read the national coverage of the Wake County school busing story. In a saga watched around the country, neighborhood schools advocates took over Wake's school board, defeating a majority dedicated to using busing to achieve socioeconomic balance in schools. Then last week, the new board voted to disassemble a decade-old busing program and send kids to the school closest to their home.
Until that vote, buses drove Wake's children past nearby schools every morning to others further away. The goal was that no one school would wind up with large proportions of low-income children. But the long bus rides infuriated some parents who saw their children as pawns in a system that valued diversity over education.
The NAACP and other groups, meanwhile, argued correctly that a system that assigned kids to nearby neighborhood schools would result in schools that were racially and economically segregated, with large concentrations of poverty.
With Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools already a decade into a neighborhood schools busing system, the South's big school districts are resegregating, the story went.
Those were the parts of the story the national media got right. After that, their reporting went a bit off the rails, as often happens when reporters parachute in to cover events. The assumption in the telling and retelling of the story by the media last week was that Southern schools would inevitably return to what they were under segregation in the last century, with privileged whites going to separate schools with better teachers, equipment and funding, while majority-minority schools withered on the vine for lack of resources. That, in turn, would decrease educational equality and depress test scores. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system was regularly used as an example of what this might look like, since it had preceded Wake into neighborhood busing.
Here are the problems with that story line:
• The idea that most poor and minority students go to resegregated, high-poverty schools in Mecklenburg County because of neighborhood busing, an assumption made by some who covered the story, is incorrect. When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools stopped busing for diversity 12 years ago, it was a truly segregated system with a 58 percent white student population. Massive middle-class rejection of the school system since then has led to today's reality, in which just a third of CMS students are white. White kids and those from middle-income backgrounds have now achieved minority status in CMS. Given that mathematical reality, the vast majority of the schools in the system would have low-income, non-white majority populations no matter where CMS bused kids. Unlike the Wake system, there just aren't enough middle-income kids left in the CMS system to desegregate it with.
A little more than 20 percent of the system's high schools have majority white and/or majority non low-income populations. Most of those are just over the majority mark though, with increasing non-white and low-income populations. If they continue their annual rate of growth, by the end of this decade, there won't be any high schools left in the system -- perhaps one -- that have majorities of white or non low-income students.
• The idea that high concentrations of poverty in schools leads to lower test scores, an assumption in the national media coverage, is flawed. As the Carolina Journal's John Hood pointed out, Wake's minority students and those on free and reduced lunch have posted test scores similar to or lower than their counterparts in other systems that don't bus to achieve diversity.
Last year, on their end of course composites, CMS' African-American and free and reduced lunch students had a 64.7-percent pass rate compared to a 58.5 percent pass rate for the same groups in Wake County schools.
• During segregationist times, poor and majority black schools in the South were desperately underfunded. But the idea that schools with large minority or low-income populations are still underfunded here in the South compared to schools with majorities of middle-income children in general, and in Mecklenburg County in particular, or would automatically return to such a state were busing for diversity to stop, is something of an urban myth that national reporters regularly fall for. According to a recent Charlotte Observer article, local schools with majority poor populations received double the funding per pupil that schools with low poverty levels did. Across the system, CMS spent at least a third more on low-income students per capita than on non-poor kids. Again, that's without busing to achieve diversity.
CMS' policies also mandate smaller class size and smaller student-to-teacher ratios at schools with large low-income populations. This could be why students here have outscored those in Wake County.
That said, North Carolina's school systems have a long way to go to achieve equality of outcome between poor and non poor kids. But to paint our schools as having regressed to segregation era status, or likely to head that way, is a bit of a stretch.