The Resegregation of Charlotte’s Public Schools

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

In the late-20th century, Charlotte, North Carolina’s public schools became a shining example of successful racial integration. Many affluent white residents even embraced the efforts by sending their white children to predominantly black schools like West Charlotte High, showing their commitment to making integration work and distinguishing themselves from violently resistant cities like Memphis and Birmingham. For Newsweek, Alexander Nazaryan looks at the history of Charlotte’s school integration and bussing programs, and how far the city and America have degenerated since those promising years.

By the time Foxx became mayor, the Capacchione v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools decision had largely resegregated schools in Charlotte. “Neighborhoods became more segregated following the declaration of unitary status,” says Amy Hawn Nelson, a University of Pennsylvania education researcher who has closely studied Charlotte’s demographics (a school district has reached “unitary status” when it is no longer deemed segregated). The result, Nelson says, was that real estate brokers could lure buyers by promising that their children would be guaranteed a spot in some well-regarded suburban school, since the fear of those children being bussed elsewhere was pretty much gone. And what typically burnishes a school’s reputation? Racial composition, not academic achievement. “Even when you look at school quality metrics, Nelson told me, “white families are more likely to pick a white school rather than a high performing school.”

There have been efforts by school Charlotte-Mecklenburg superintendents—who are independent of the mayor—to skirt the ruling by creating more magnet schools and implementing “student reassignment” plans that modestly push for reintegration. Only the countervailing push is stronger. The internet allows for subatomic analysis of each school’s demographics and academics. If they can get a child into Providence, one of the best high schools in Charlotte, they will. Who wouldn’t? And thanks to Capacchione, they can do so without resorting to a federal lawsuit.

Most of these people are liberals: Mecklenburg County voted for Obama twice, while Hillary Clinton nearly doubled Donald Trump’s vote total in 2016. Yet it is one thing to vote in a school gymnasium for a politician you have never seen, quite another to watch your own child ascend the steps of a yellow bus. It used to be that voting and public education were seen as part of the same set of behaviors collectively called civic participation. No longer so, not when a scholarship to Stanford hangs in the balance. As the education writer Nikole Hannah-Jones has put it: “We began moving away from the ‘public’ in public education a long time ago. In fact, treating public schools like a business these days is largely a matter of fact in many places.” Once citizens, we are now customers.

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