Resegregation as a ‘hardship’ to learning

June 26, 2010

An interesting effort is under way to challenge the reassignment decisions that have resegregated CMS schools.

The effort will remain a private affair for awhile, but it might have some public impact in the longer term.

It’s private because it involves an appeal of a single individual’s high school reassignment. Those challenges are heard privately by a small panel of school board members. Hundreds are heard annually, and the hardship claimed usually has to do with transportation or afterschool care or participation in sports. Such individual appeals rarely have wider impact and generally do not become public.

But this case might be different.

The student was affected by the last Board of Education’s 2009 decision to reassign about 200 black students from Hopewell High School to West Charlotte High. The reassignments will make Hopewell whiter, and West Charlotte blacker.

The appeal to the school board reportedly will make a case that reassignment from an integrated educational setting to a segregated setting will create an educational hardship for the student.

West Charlotte will have less than a handful of white students this fall, more than 80% black students and the remainder from other minority groups. In 2008-9, West Charlotte was 87% black, Hopewell 40% black and 47% white.

With the school board publicly quite comfortable with its resegregative policies, this appeal will in all likelihood be denied. The panel hearing the appeal will clearly comprehend that a favorable decision will create a sturdy precedent for a possible cascade of appeals from students who have been reassigned since 2002 from mostly integrated elementary, middle and high schools to the mostly economically or racially segregated schoolhouses operated by the district today.

The appeal might, however, coincide with a short-term moratorium on the Hopewell-to-West Charlotte reassignments as the board elected last November reassesses this decision by the previous board. A moratorium would bring the issue into the public realm, and put the Hopewell reassignment decision back on the table at a time when the board has committed to a “comprehensive review” of its practices, including reassignment.

And the appeal could create a new opportunity for litigation that would challenge the resegregation of schools as an educationally unsound result of the local board’s assignment policies. Such litigation, whether undertaken on its own or opened as part of the ongoing Leandro litigation in the N.C. Superior Court in Raleigh, could certainly attract the attention of Judge Howard Manning, who oversees the case. Leandro has resulted in some supplemental state funds for underfunded districts, and has put a number of districts, including CMS, on Manning’s hot seat over their failure to provide what the N.C. Supreme Court has defined as the “sound, basic education” mandated by the N.C. Constitution.

Faced with the prospect of litigation, the current majority of the school board might be tempted to use its current comprehensive review to remove any policy foundation on which such a challenge might gain legal footing. A severe narrowing of the policy grounds for student reassignment appeals might do the trick.

But the board has put itself in a dinghy on a choppy sea. The first three public forums during its comprehensive review have reportedly been dominated by parents urging substantive diversity. At a time when some board members seem bent on eliminating opportunities for voluntary diversity, there have been calls from parents for involuntary means to ensure diversity at all schools, in all classrooms.

Have the public forum crowds been unrepresentative of Mecklenburg’s parents? No doubt. But putting a finger in the wind may not be sufficient grounds for school board policymaking. The community remains at risk of becoming a national laughingstock for its failure to educate all its children. Even more important: One family believes that the life prospects of their child are at stake.