News: Charlotte Exclusives

Hands Up, Who is For Neighborhood Schools?

Local leaders need to take a stand

With a new team of Mecklenburg County commissioners now in power, Charlotte can finally turn to some fundamental issues that will shape the city into 2005 and far beyond. Although transportation and development questions still loom large, nothing seems to be a bigger issue right now than education.

Specifically, several disparate forces will push local leaders to decide if Charlotte’s recent experiment with neighborhood schools will continue, or be replaced by something else, and if so what. Unfortunately there seems to be great reluctance to talk frankly about the possibility of resuming cross-county busing of school kids, but there is simply no denying the facts.

A numbers crunch exists in the Southern and, even more so, Northern tips of Mecklenburg County. Schools there are bursting at the seams while classrooms near the center city are under capacity. That is one force at work.

Another force pushing the status quo is the federal No Child Left Behind Act which requires local schools to either get better or give kids an escape to schools that are better. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools that escape route to the better schools runs toward the outlying areas, in some cases the very ones that are already stuffed full of kids from near-by neighborhoods.

If we were talking about widgets instead of schools kids one seeming easy fix suggests itself. Simply bus widgets/kids from outlying areas into the underperforming schools in the center city. The numbers crunch would ease are the edges of the county and the addition of high performing students would boost school scores out of the non-attainment danger zone for the school itself. Problem solved.

Except that parents of the widget/kids selected to fix this problem would promptly go into orbit. Scratch that seeming easy solution and you see the issue as it now faces policy-makers. Further, dispense with various code words like “diversity” and “equity” and we are down to the crux of the matter.

Like many school systems across the county, CMS must find a way to retain white students from middle and upper-income income families at the same time it brings non-white, lower income kids up to required performance levels. These goals are not mutually exclusive, but as the widget fix shows neither are they frictionless either. The crucial question now for local leaders it just how far are they willing to go with regard to changes in student assignments to achieve a mix of both goals?

Is, in fact, the “widget solution” completely off the table for CMS? Or is there a belief that a limited application of “busing for space and not for race” can be effective? Exactly how far along are plans for a possible “pay-to-stay” model? Pay-to-stay would involve slapping impact fees on new housing construction in the county with the proceeds used to pay for bonds for school construction. In effect, parents in the far suburbs would be asked to pay upfront for their neighborhood schools, which would relieve the space crunch while freeing funds for underperforming schools.

Are there any plans for some type of consortium grouping of schools that might be more effective than the current choice and magnet programs which do not seem to be having the desired effect, namely attracting students from the edges of the county into the city? Finally, is a property tax hike a foregone conclusion for county taxpayers?

These are just a few of questions that should be asked, and answered, in the coming months. The stakes are too high for another round of behind closed-doors decision-making, as too often Charlotte seems to gravitate towards.