Reporting from Charlotte, N.C. — Confronted with depressing revenue numbers, this Southern city's school board reluctantly embraced a solution that is increasingly common in America's struggling economy: They voted to close schools, 10 of them.
The decision last month sparked a racially charged uproar. The district is 33% white. The majority of the school board is white. In the schools targeted for closure, 95% of students are minorities.
Before the vote, hundreds of residents, including many worried black and Latino parents, packed public forums to protest. Charges of racism were leveled, and the local head of the NAACP was hauled away from one meeting in handcuffs. School board members have received threatening letters.
Yet, strangely, this season of tumult has also been a season of triumph for a district where the leadership professes to put a premium on educating its poor and minority students.
In an October ceremony at New York's Museum of Modern Art attended by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the Broad Foundation awarded $250,000 to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, ranking it among the top five large school districts in the nation that have improved learning for poor children and students of color.
How could this school system be simultaneously viewed as hero and villain? The disconnect — and dilemma — has rattled Charlotte, a banking hub that has long prided itself on being moderate by Southern standards, a place traditionally more interested in commerce than conflict.
"I think there was this sense we could make a businesslike decision and move through it and go on to the next thing," Anthony Foxx, the city's second black mayor, said of the closures. "But you know, as much as we've moved on chronologically from the past, there's still some residual issues there."
Over the last half century, Charlotte's 135,000-student school system has toggled from segregation to integration and back. Once again, many blacks and whites are separate. And now, hard times are exposing deep differences in the way residents perceive — and measure — what is equal.
The seeds of the conflict were planted in 1971, when the Supreme Court, in Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, mandated an integration plan for the district, and in so doing, approved busing plans nationwide.
The year of the landmark ruling, a fire was set in the offices of Julius L. Chambers, the African American attorney who represented the plaintiffs. But over time, many in Charlotte, including many leading white families, came to take pride in the relative success of busing. Residents called Charlotte "the city that made desegregation work."
It lasted about two decades. Support began unraveling in the 1990s, especially as newcomers flocked to Charlotte to work in its banks and other businesses. Many were Northern white-collar workers who were uncomfortable with integrated schools and concerned about what they saw as a lack of rigor in the classroom.
"I believe they conflated desegregation with a generally inferior Southern education," said Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina- Charlotte. "That started a movement from below from newcomers that busing has got to end."
By 1999, a federal judge ordered an end to Charlotte's integration efforts, finding that the district had "eliminated … the vestiges of past discrimination in the traditional areas of school operations."
When parents were allowed to send their children to their neighborhood schools, racially mixed campuses quickly reverted to being either predominantly white and wealthy in the suburbs, or, in the inner city, primarily poor and minority.
That was the scene the current superintendent, Peter Gorman, encountered when he joined the district in 2006.
By that time, the district was working hard to maintain "equity." There were rules governing the allocation of staff, supplies and facilities on inner-city campuses, and a committee to monitor it all, said LaTarzja Henry, a district spokeswoman.
It was what Henry calls the "stuff and things" model. To Gorman it seemed to miss the mark. He noted how the district, in the name of "equity," leaned on a principal to create a chess club at one struggling school because other schools had chess clubs.
The principal dutifully assigned a teacher to head the new club. But to do so, the teacher was forced to abandon an after-school literacy program.
"We could be in compliance with our equity policy, and not have kids graduate from school," Gorman said. "I went to the board and said we've got to increase the graduation rate, the college-going rate.... We needed to focus more on outcomes for kids."