The head of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools—North Carolina’s second-largest school system—says state lawmakers’ brewing talk of dividing large districts is “bad public policy.”
“I don’t think large is inherently bad,” CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox told Policy Watch Wednesday, hours after a legislative study committee dominated by Republicans convened to consider whether students in mammoth districts like CMS and Wake County Schools, the state’s largest school system, would be better served by smaller districts piloted by local municipalities.
In the Charlotte area, some leaders in the suburban town of Matthews have long clamored for a split from CMS, a so-called “secession” that’s gained some traction from Mecklenburg Republicans like Rep. Bill Brawley, who co-chairs the legislative committee, and Rep. John Bradford III.
And while committee leaders say the panel has no plans to recommend breaking up any specific district, Brawley filed legislation last year that would have allowed Matthews and the nearby town of Mint Hill to launch their own publicly-funded charters aimed at enrolling residents in the two small, suburban towns.
The bill passed the state House but stalled in the Senate, even as lawmakers approved the creation of Brawley’s ongoing study committee, which is expected to present a report with recommendations for the legislature this spring.
Meanwhile, Sen. Joyce Waddell, a Democrat from Charlotte and a member of the study committee, said she believes the panel’s end goal is to pave the way for a divided CMS. “And there’s no clear advantage to doing so,” she said.
If Matthews branched off, the schools would likely be overwhelmingly white and affluent, a point noted by Wilcox Wednesday.
According to Data USA, a service that compiles government databases, the population in both Mint Hill and Matthews is at least 74 percent white. And both far surpass the median annual household income in the United States, which is just less than $60,000
They’re also markedly less diverse than Charlotte proper, a city of more than 827,000 that serves as the primary wellspring for the school district.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said Wilcox. “I think they would be racially isolated. They would lose the opportunity to go to school with the people that they’d go to work with. And I think our kids would lose the opportunity to learn some of the things that make Matthews a special and unique place.”
Critics say lawmakers should be concerned about the implications, particularly in Charlotte.
A report from the progressive N.C. Justice Center this month pegged CMS as, “by far,” the most racially segregated district in North Carolina [Disclosure: The Justice Center is Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit].
Using a “dissimilarity index,” an established method of calculating disparities, the report noted CMS would have to reassign 55 percent of students to achieve racial parity across its 176 schools. Using the same measure for income, the district—which enrolls more than 147,000 pupils—would need to reassign 59 percent of students to achieve an income balance.
Suburban residents in Wake County likewise clamored for splitting Wake County Schools, which enrolls more than 160,000 students. But Wake faces its own struggles.
According to the Justice Center report, the county would have to reassign 30 percent of students to achieve racial parity, and 41 percent for income parity.
The report added that fracturing such districts may only exacerbate the problem.
“These kinds of steps have the potential to undermine a lot of the work that we’re doing in order to make opportunity more widely available throughout the region,” says Justin Perry, a Charlotte parent who helped lead One Meck, an advocacy group that pushed local leaders in recent years to diversify schools and opportunity in the county.
Perry said Charlotte is already in need of a “comprehensive” discussion of its school boundaries, segregated real estate and housing patterns and local charters, which he called a “game-changer” when it comes to re-segregation.
State reports show North Carolina charters tend to be more white and affluent than traditional schools. And, since 2013, state law no longer requires that the publicly-funded schools—which operate with relaxed restrictions on curriculum and calendar—reflect the demographic makeup of the areas they serve, only that they “make efforts” to do so.
“We need a really honest conversation about what charters are designed to do and what they’re actually doing,” said Perry.
Meanwhile, if Wake or Charlotte schools splintered, it would buck the state’s historic trend. In the 1960s, the state counted more than 165 schools systems, but after decades of consolidation, mostly along county lines, there are just 115 districts in North Carolina today.
Critics say a fissure in the Charlotte school system would mark another sign of the drastic turnaround in North Carolina’s largest city, where a seminal 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case once set a national standard for student busing and assignment designed to integrate K-12 schools.
Education experts say K-12 research makes a strong case for integration. Students of color and low-income students benefit, while white students don’t see negative impacts on their performance. Meanwhile, racially isolated schools can have a deleterious effect on the poor and children of color.
Charlotte school leaders finalized a heavily scrutinized examination of its school boundaries last year, one that eschewed a massive reassignment to incentivize membership in its growing magnet school program, which allows students to enroll in specialized schools regardless of attendance lines. Wilcox said the program enrolled 7,000 new students this year.
Matthews leaders—who either declined Policy Watch interview requests or did not respond—reportedly indicated they were pleased with the attendance lines, but want long-term guarantees students will not be bused out of their communities.
Wilcox, who took over as CMS superintendent last July after stints in Maryland, Florida and Louisiana, said district officials have been in talks with Matthews leaders about magnet programs and possibly placing a regional office in the suburban town of about 29,000.
He calls suggestions that Matthews residents are eager to split from CMS “overblown,” pointing to recent district surveys that indicate 75 to 80 percent of the town’s residents are “satisfied” with their local schools.
“I think more rational minds are going to sit down and say, ‘How are we going to make this work?’” Wilcox said.
The superintendent added that, from 2001 to 2004, he led a Baton Rouge school district that eventually split in two following the passage of a state constitution amendment.
“Honestly, it wasn’t good for kids,” Wilcox said. “I just hate to see us repeat mistakes that clearly are avoidable.”
Wilcox isn’t the only top K-12 leader who’s urging state legislators to dismiss calls to break up large school districts.
N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson declined an interview to talk about the committee’s work, but June Atkinson, who served as state superintendent from 2004 through 2016, said she hopes lawmakers will “put this particular idea to bed.”
Atkinson was also a teacher in Charlotte’s Myers Park High in the mid-1970s, when the district unfurled a court-ordered revamp of school boundaries aimed at diversifying enrollment in local schools.
She said proposals to split CMS and other large districts today come laden with myriad problems. “One of the greatest dangers of doing so is the re-segregation of our schools, not only by race, but by income.”
Waddell agrees. “I think it does open a door to some re-segregation of the school system,” said Waddell. “That’s what we don’t want. We fought so long and so hard in previous years for what we have now.”
Atkinson added that she believes the proposal may also spur “inefficiencies” in transportation, administration and more, forcing already cash-strapped districts to spend limited resources. Indeed, N.C. Department of Public Instruction officials suggested the splits might lead to higher costs, including millions in new transportation bills for CMS and Wake schools.
Researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill told legislators Wednesday that studies of a school system’s fiscal efficiency yield a “mixed bag” when it comes to the size of the district, although school systems may be at their most efficient when they serve around 15,000 students.
The research is equally “mixed” when it comes to student performance, they said. Some studies show positive effects on attendance and outcomes in smaller districts, although a 2010 Georgia study found students had improved passing rates on state-administered exams in larger districts.
Broken down into different student subgroups, experts told lawmakers that studies found district size to be positively associated with performance in affluent areas, but negatively associated in poorer regions.
However, those researchers cautioned legislators against drawing solid conclusions, pointing out many studies were conducted two to three decades ago and failed to control for factors other than district size that may have contributed to their findings.
Finances and performance aren’t the only matters up for debate. Presenters told the study committee this month that districts seeking to divide would likely face legal challenges and constitutional concerns arising from the state’s ongoing struggles to comply with a series of court rulings in the Leandro case. That pivotal case held that the state had the constitutional obligation to provide a “sound, basic education” to all, regardless of locale.
Parents and students in several poor, eastern North Carolina counties challenged their share of K-12 funding in the 1990s, and the court-wrangling continues today, while a task force of gubernatorial appointees works to ready reforms with a court-ordered consultant.
A related case, scheduled for oral arguments before the state Supreme Court next month, will consider how much blame can be doled out to local government leaders in rural Halifax County for the relative struggles of three racially distinct school systems in the small, rural county.
Parents and students say two districts, which are predominantly Black, have not been funded at the same level as a third, majority white district.
Mark Dorosin, a former attorney with the UNC-Chapel Hill Center for Civil Rights, is the lead counsel in that case. This week, Dorosin said Halifax County is an “extreme example” of de facto segregation due to local government policymaking, but it should be a warning to leaders in Wake and Mecklenburg.
“It would not be surprising to see white enclave districts and majority minority districts there too,” said Dorosin. “Halifax stands as an example of what the balkanized county system can mean racially.”
Dorosin added that state leaders should consider the evidence of diversity’s positive impacts on a K-12 education. “Integration and diversity is an educational tool that plays a role in the education students have,” he said. “These are not competing priorities.”
If anything comes from the committee’s work, CMS Superintendent Wilcox said he hopes lawmakers will consider whether they’re adequately funding local school districts, a frequent criticism from local leaders.
“I hope they see that it isn’t size that matters.”
The legislative committee is scheduled to meet again April 4.