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Resegregated schooling in a polarized society

When Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the “technical corrections” bill before Christmas, he sent the General Assembly a spare three-sentence message. In doing so, he signaled that large issues lay behind the “technical” adjustments to previous legislation.

“Ending storm-water and water quality protections threaten the safety of our communities,” the governor said. “Additionally, municipal charter schools set a dangerous precedent that could lead to taxpayer funded resegregation. Therefore, I veto the bill.”

While someone with more knowledge of storm-water regulations can unpack the first sentence, I want to return to the second sentence to highlight its significance. In it, North Carolina’s highest statewide elected official acknowledged the threat posed by further separation of students along lines of race and income in the state’s schools.

At issue in the legislation is a provision that permits employees of municipal charter schools to join the state’s health and retirement plans. That provision makes it easier for four suburban communities in Mecklenburg County to set up charter schools, almost certainly with a distinctly white-student enrollment. Despite warnings that they would foster resegregation, lawmakers had given the four towns permission to establish charter schools earlier in 2018.

In one of its final acts as a veto-proof majority, Republican legislators voted to override the Democratic governor’s veto of the technical-adjustments bill. And, of course, neither the governor nor legislators have much direct power to put the state back on a course toward fully integrated schools. School boards and superintendents ultimately determine attendance zones in their districts.

Still, in the short-run, state authorities have the power to do two important things: 1) to avoid actions that foster segregation and 2) to appropriate the funds necessary to address the educational needs of poor and minority young people packed into schools that then become branded as low-performing.

Resegregation, of course, is not unique to North Carolina; it is a national trend, amply documented in academic, journalistic, and government research. As federal court rulings eventually broke up the system of white schools and black schools across the South in the 1970s and ’80s, the region’s public schools indeed became more racially integrated than schools across the nation. More recently, as federal judges lifted previous orders mandating “unitary’’ systems, erosion or back-sliding – choose your term – took place.

Among the many national news stories on North Carolina over the past year, mostly generated by gerrymandering and other political clashes, at least two focused on resegregation in education. Newsweek pegged a long report to the experience of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, noting how the district had once served as a national model for its civic-minded response to the court rulings that allowed busing as a tool for desegregation.

Bloomberg, the business-oriented news organization, surveyed Southern places, including Wake County, where efforts have arisen to break apart school districts into smaller units. In the recent past, the Wake County district won national attention for its efforts to prevent a drift toward resegregation through the use of magnet schools and of socio-economic factors in designing districts.

The legislature studied, but so far has not acted, on whether to permit the break-up of large countywide districts. The issue, which arose again during weather-related school closings across the sprawling Wake district, remains a nettlesome cloud that would dissipate by lawmakers resolving to do no harm.

The governor’s pungent one-line about avoiding “taxpayer-funded resegregation’’ raises a basic question embedded in day-to-day education policy decisions: Can a fast-changing North Carolina build a sense of community and revitalize the concept of e pluribus unam?

Resegregation arises from polarization not only in the political ecosystem but also in the electorate. And yet, it is difficult to imagine a response to today’s hyper-polarization that does not involve young people getting to know each other by learning together. Schools reflect the divisions in society, and schools serve as an antidote to societal divisions.

For data and further commentary on the resegregation issue, see also:

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.