News: Charlotte Exclusives

Judging or Fudging?

Manning ruling stops short of solutions for CMS woes

Despite 45-pages of blunt language and eye-popping stats, you’ll not find two telling words in Judge Howard Manning Jr.’s broadside largely directed at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “Discipline” and “charter,” as in charter schools, are absent. This void indicates that Manning has only gone halfway in his quest to improve public education in the state’s lowest performing schools.

First, the good. Judge Manning could not, and did not, try to argue that more money would fix what ails CMS. Mecklenburg spends substantially more than other urban districts in the state and gets poorer results. There is simply no evidence that even more money would right things either at CMS or statewide.

The Wake Superior Court judge also pulls no punches in examining recent CMS high school test scores, concluding they showed schools to be “academically in the ditch year after year.” The numbers Manning pried lose from the CMS bureaucracy tell the tale.

“The three year analysis also shows that there has been NO overall progress made in high school student achievement in CMS in the years 2002, 2003, and 2004. Black students remain constant at 60% below grade level in high school [year-end] tests while White students remain constant at 23% below grade level in high school [year-end] tests,” Manning writes.

This leads Manning to deploy his calculatedly inflammatory money quote: “The most appropriate way for the Court to describe what is going on academically at CMS’s bottom ‘8’ high schools is academic genocide for the at-risk, low income children.”

Only time will tell if Manning’s rhetorical flourish makes its way into the public lexicon, for example in the way the 1961 Newton Minnow “vast wasteland” critique of TV programming did, but that is clearly the goal of the phrase. And, frankly, this is also where Judge Manning starts to miss some opportunities to advocate for real, meaningful change.

Had Manning gathered independent testimony from CMS teachers, and the report evinces no sign that he did, he would’ve discovered that discipline is issue A, B, and C for high school teachers in low performing schools. Manning dances all around the issue, positing that smart, young teachers are often unequipped to teach at-risk youth, or that lateral-entry teachers who might have great expertise in a given subject are similarly unprepared for the classroom. Left unsaid is often it is the startling lack of student discipline that teachers are unequipped and unprepared for.

The discipline issue runs also directly to Manning’s other personnel beef, that principals need to be more effective. Yet CMS does not operate in a way that actually allows for principals to be change agents in command of their own schools as discipline issues are kicked downtown for resolution by the sprawling CMS bureaucracy. Principals simply do not have the power to address the discipline issues their teachers bring to them. How Manning can believe that CMS can somehow recruit or create a better, more effective class of principal with those discipline policies in place is a mystery.

Even more mysterious is Manning’s infatuation with breaking big high schools in smaller, independent sub-units. He notes, at great length, that such “New School” reforms should produce learning environments that are more human-scaled, responsive, and to some extent competitive with each other for students, teachers, and prestige. This is all certainly true and the experiment inside Olympic high in this direction merits a close study for possible repeatable solutions, but it is undeniable that charter schools break down current educational barriers even more.

If Manning believes that making schools more responsive to parents and students would go a long way toward improving academic performance, his failure to cite charter schools as a big part of more effective public education is baffling. We are left to surmise that Judge Manning really does not trust parents to be the primary policy makers for education in North Carolina, to take control from bureaucrats, politicians, and, yes, judges.

And that ultimately makes Manning’s ruling nothing more than a brief for the status quo.