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Learning about the future from the past: Reporting on Swann

Last month, I wrote a story about the 45th anniversary of the Swann v. Board of Education case, published here by EdNC and here by Scalawag. The story largely focused on the issues Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is confronting as it moves through a controversial student assignment review this year.

I spent about three months reporting and writing the story, and continue to be fascinated with the dynamics of the debate surrounding the way CMS draws boundary lines for schools. Here’s what I learned:

Many parents don’t know Charlotte’s history.

Charlotte’s population has more or less doubled in the last 30 years, and many of the people who have moved here during that time don’t have a full grasp of the city’s past. In one public meeting I attended, parents who support neighborhood schools argued that court-ordered busing was a failure in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

That’s not necessarily the case.

Amy Hawn Nelson, a UNC Charlotte researcher who I interviewed for the story, calls court-ordered desegregation “a rejected success” in Charlotte. Indeed, public opinion among parents—particularly those in the suburban parts of the city—did turn against busing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But for years, Charlotte viewed the way it integrated its schools as a point of community pride. It was handled in what’s often dubbed the Charlotte way: respectfully, thoughtfully, and with the business community leading the charge.

That history is lost of many people who are now involved on both sides of the student assignment debate, and they readily admit it. Both sides and policymakers are attempting to educate supporters—though everyone is quick to point out that Charlotte in 2016 is very different from Charlotte in 1966.

Families are engaged—but will they stay that way?

Those of us who have covered and worked in public education for some time know that parental engagement is critical to a school system’s success. CMS has an entire department dedicated to family engagement. So, as one school board member told me, seeing a thousand parents turn out to a community meeting is remarkable.

This has happened before, on other issues, and the groundswell of interest always wanes after the crisis—school closures, budget cuts, bond campaign—is resolved.

CMS, the school board, and advocacy organizations are trying to figure out how to capture this momentum and hold onto it. Doing so would be a tremendous win for everyone.

Student assignment is always contentious.

The experts I interviewed pointed out that anytime a school board shifts student assignment boundaries, even if just one street in one neighborhood is affected, it is contentious.

Changes to students’ assignments mean adjustments in family schedules, disruptions to the child’s social and academic lives, and uncertainty about a new reality. No matter what happens this summer and fall, and no matter what school students are assigned to attend in the fall of 2017, some child will experience a change.

Parents, understandably, can be myopic about public education policy. They look at broad policy changes through the lens of their own child. “How does this affect my son or daughter?” No doubt, that question will prompt uncomfortable answers for some families whose children will attend new schools because of a new student assignment policy.

What happens with this issue will bleed over into others.

How the district and school board choose to handle student assignment will have significant effects on two issues in particular: the hiring of a new superintendent and a school bond campaign either this year or next.

A new leader will have to heal wounds, no matter what happens. How deep those wounds are, and how deftly a new superintendent handles their treatment, will determine how effective he or she can be on other policy issues.

Student assignment will also affect support for the more than $800 million school facilities bond package that CMS wants voters to approve. The district is pushing for the bond to be on November’s ballot, though Mecklenburg County commissioners prefer it to be on the 2017 ballot. Regardless, parents are unlikely to support the referendum if they feel dissatisfied with the school board’s handling of student assignment.

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.