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The tipping point: School board axes neighborhood schools

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Eleven years ago, this would have been easy.

Fifty-eight percent of the students at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools were white, and more than 60 percent were middle-class or better. Had the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board wanted to, it could have integrated local public schools using poverty as a driver, as Wake County has, setting up every school with equal shares of poor and better-heeled students. (It's now illegal to use race to integrate schools.)

A lame-duck school board appears to have finally decided to follow Wake's lead, voting to use bussing to jack up poverty rates at suburban schools like North Mecklenburg High School, Butler High School and the new Mint Hill high school over the last three months. Now they've announced that they plan to redistrict the affluent Myers Park High School, ultimately using students from there to integrate suburban East Mecklenburg High School economically.

Their goal is clear. The school board is integrating the few true middle-class suburban schools that remain, choosing social equity over the neighborhood schools suburban voters were promised in the last bond referendum.

But there's a problem. It's no longer 1998. A massive rejection of CMS has occurred over the last decade by middle-class and white parents. Now just 33 percent of CMS students are white and half are now poor, as black and white middle-class parents flee to surrounding counties. That's a staggering 25-percentage point drop in just 11 years. When you consider that 61 percent of the county is white and less than a third of the county is poor, this is an indictment of the school system that goes far beyond racial and class lines. It is a flat-out rejection of an inferior public education product.

If our school system merely reflected the racial and poverty demographics of the county, our schools would be both strong and diverse. Instead, our school board so alienated parents and teachers that it sparked white flight that population demographics alone can't explain.

These parents didn't leave the school system, but rather never showed up in the first place. While people of all races and income levels continue to move to Mecklenburg County, those with children, an interest in public schools and the means to do so are choosing to live outside the county -- or they are leaving once their children approach school age, attracted by schools in surrounding counties with higher test scores and better teachers. That's why the number of white/non-poor students in the county school system each year has remained largely the same over the last seven years while CMS' overall population has boomed.

Meanwhile, thousands of new middle class students now show up at schools in surrounding counties each year, pushing these systems to the limit. This flight has also sucked CMS' best teachers over the county line and led to massive traffic congestion problems as parents seeking quality teachers and high-scoring schools get in their cars each morning and drive back in to the county to work.

All of this leaves the school board with a simple choice. CMS can spread the poverty in the system across the county fairly, bussing students around so that all schools have 50 percent of their populations on the free- and reduced-lunch program. This is the most equitable option, or would be for about five minutes, since the school system would be putting every school in the system at what education experts call the "tipping point." Once schools hit a 50-percent poverty rate, a rapid acceleration begins as engaged parents with the means to move abandon them. Within just a few years, the poverty rates at a tipping-point school will hit 60 and 70 percent. It's a national trend, one that is referred to with despair at just about every school board meeting here.

The school board has a second option, and it's not pretty either. It can continue to allow the existence of five or six semi-diverse suburban high schools with poverty rates of 20 to 40 percent in order to keep parents with the means to leave engaged with the school system. The price for that is other high schools with poverty rates more than 60 percent and the poor academic performance and quality teacher recruitment problems that come with it.

The school board chose the first option when it took the ax to the neighborhood school concept again last week, voting to open the new Mint Hill High School with a 52-percent poverty rate and bussed-in student body. Mint Hill and Matthews students will be bussed to Independence High School, which will reduce the poverty rate there from 54 percent to 44 percent. The plan Mint Hill parents wanted would have sent their kids to the new Mint Hill high school, which would have opened with a 32-percent poverty rate.

This is clearly the blueprint the board plans to follow for the rest of the county. It is the fairer and the more equitable of the two. And it already has one Union County developer who e-mailed me last week salivating at the thought of the building boom to come.

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