Sociation Today

Sociation Today

ISSN 1542-6300

The Official Journal of the
North Carolina Sociological Association

A Peer-Reviewed
Refereed Web-Based 

Fall/Winter 2015
Volume 13, Issue 2

The Desegregation and
Resegregation of the
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, 1970-2015:
Insights for the Future of Public Education in North Carolina and the Nation


Amy Hawn Nelson
UNC Charlotte

Roslyn Arlin Mickelson
UNC Charlotte

Stephen Samuel Smith
Winthrop University



    For three decades the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School (CMS) district was a bellwether in the nation's desegregation history. Following the Supreme Court's 1971 Swann decision upholding cross-town busing as a constitutional remedy for de jure segregation, CMS implemented a desegregation plan that placed the district at the forefront of the nation's efforts to desegregate public schools.   Few school reforms have been as fully and successfully implemented as CMS' desegregation plan (Mickelson, Smith, and Hawn Nelson 2015). (1)   The desegregation experience in CMS was widely viewed as successful because of broad community support, high levels of racial balance throughout the district, and improved educational outcomes for all students (Mickelson 2001; Smith 2004).

    From the mid-1970s until 2002, when the Swann court order was vacated and CMS began operating as a unitary system, desegregation in CMS produced academic and social benefits for all K-12 students irrespective of their race or social class backgrounds  (Hawn 2010; Mickelson 2001, 2015; Smith 2004). During that period civic leaders and community members from all walks of life took tremendous pride in the district's accomplishments, and Charlotte gained the national recognition as a progressive New South city. This recognition heightened the community's standing as a good place to live and do business, a reputation that increased the area's economic development (Smith 2004). For three decades, desegregation of the Charlotte schools benefitted students, the larger community, and spurred economic development of the metropolitan area.

    Thus, it is ironic that CMS is now among the many school districts across the nation that have resegregated. Fourteen years after desegregation efforts ceased in 2002, and forty-five years after Swann, CMS has largely resegregated across race and class lines. One in five schools is now hypersegregated, with more than 95% students of color while other schools in the outlying areas are disproportionately white (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools 2014).   CMS students' outcomes, from test scores to graduation rates, are linked to the racial and SES composition of their schools (Billings, Deming, and Rockoff 2014). CMS is certainly not alone in this regard. Resegregation has increased nationally (Fiel 2013), particularly in districts declared unitary and released from court-ordered desegregation (Reardon et. al 2012). 

    Importantly, the story of segregation, desegregation, and resegregation in Charlotte has broad implications for racial justice and equal educational rights in both local and national education policy debates.  The forty-year history of the building and unraveling of desegregation's social and political coalition in Charlotte is far less about a failed policy experience than it is about a rejected policy success (Oakes 2015).  This article focuses on three themes that emerge from CMS' desegregation story: the interplay of structure and agency in policy decisions, the interest convergence thesis of public policy, and the imperative for social purpose politics for advancing a school diversity policy agenda. CMS's desegregation history and the lessons from it illustrate several larger theoretical points and public policy themes with which school systems and state governments continue to wrestle.

Brief History of the Resegregation of CMS

    Beginning in the early 1970s, CMS responded to the Supreme Court's decision in Swann (1971) by successfully implementing a district-wide desegregation plan that it operated until 2002. The district relied primarily on cross-town busing and paired elementary schools until 1992. But a drift toward racial imbalance started in the mid-1980s and intensified after the district adopted a controlled-choice magnet school plan for desegregation. Families volunteered to enter their children into a magnet school enrollment lottery for available seats in desired schools. The lottery targeted 40 percent of seats for blacks and 60 percent of seats for whites and members of other racial groups. Under the magnet plan, most schools met the desegregation guidelines, though overall imbalance in the district did increase. The controlled-choice lottery for magnet school seats was designed to meet CMS' legal obligation to desegregate. The use of racial guidelines in the magnet school lottery process prompted a lawsuit by white families who challenged the use of race in pupil assignment (Capacchione et al. 1999).  As a result of this lawsuit, the original Swann litigation was reopened. Because the original Swann plaintiffs no longer had standing (their children had long since graduated from CMS), two young Black families, the Belk and Collins families, joined as plaintiff-interveners. In the original Swann case, it is important to note, the school board vigorously opposed desegregation. In contrast, almost three decades later, the CMS school board voted 6-3 to continue to pursue desegregation efforts and fought to continue operating under Swann. Thus, in 1999, the CMS school board's official position was similar to that of the Belk plaintiff-interveners; namely, the school system still had not yet complied fully with the 1971 Swann decision to fully desegregate CMS and therefore should not be declared unitary.

    Federal Judge Robert Potter heard the consolidated Capacchione-Belk cases in the spring of 1999. As a private citizen, Potter had publically opposed mandatory desegregation during the 1960s and 1970s (Smith 2004), but he did not recuse himself from the case. Judge Potter declared CMS unitary and ordered the district to eliminate race as a consideration in subsequent pupil assignment plans. CMS and the Belk plaintiff-interveners appealed Potter's decision.  While the ruling was being appealed the school board designed a race-neutral pupil assignment plan based on students' residential neighborhoods, but held off implementing it until all appeals were exhausted.  After several years of unsuccessful appeals of Potter's unitary status decision, in 2002, CMS implemented its residentially-based race-neutral student assignment plan.

    As expected, given the class and race segregation of many of Charlotte's neighborhoods, the residential-based pupil assignment led to dramatically increased racial and socioeconomic school segregation. Figure 1 displays the dissimilarity index for CMS elementary schools during for the past 40 years.  (2)  Figure 1 shows how successful CMS was in creating desegregated schools in the 1970s and 1980s, how the district began to resegregate after magnet schools replaced busing as the key desegregation tool in the early 1990s, and how the district sharply resegregated after unitary status in 2002. Schools in CMS are now approaching levels of black/white segregation that existed prior to Swann.

Figure 1:  Black/White Dissimilarity Index: CMS Elementary Schools

Source: American Communities Project and Charlotte-Mecklenburg
Schools in Mickelson, Smith, and Hawn Nelson, 2015

The Interplay of Structure and Agency in Policy Choices

    The district's experiences with desegregation and resegregation have political, educational, legal, economic, demographic, and normative dimensions that unfolded over the past four decades. All dimensions are linked by a common theme that can be described as the interplay between structure and agency. Agency typically refers to "individual or group abilities (intentional or otherwise) to affect their environment" while structure typically refers to the conditions that "define the range of actions available to actors" (McNulla 2002: 271).  (3)  The dynamic interplay between structural forces and human agency contributes to educational policy outcomes that unfolded in CMS from the late 1960s to the present.  This interplay is starkly apparent in the case of desegregation and resegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where policy choices made over decades created facts on the ground that initially enhanced CMS' capacity to desegregate but, over time, limited policy actors'—even those dedicated to diverse education—to maintain desegregation in CMS.

    Charlotte's experience illustrates how yesterday's policy choices, programs, and judicial decisions become the 'brick-and-mortar' and legal structures that set the parameters for today's policies, programs, and choices.  Furthermore, complicating the iterative relationship of structure and agency across time, is the fact that any policy actor’s agency is affected by a series of nested structures—many of them due to U.S. federalism—within which education policy is made. That is, local choices are made within state and federal contexts. 

    The interactions of structural forces (such as population growth and shifting spatial demographics in Mecklenburg County) and human agency (policy decisions by business, local government, and school leaders) contributed to the district's school-level demographic shifts over several decades. This interaction meant that no single actor, organization, policy decision, court case, local education agency (LEA), state education agency (SEA), or federal agency, was solely responsible for segregation, desegregation, or resegregation.
    One poignant example of this dynamic involves the 1959 consolidation of the then-separate city and county school districts that occurred following the advocacy (agency) of civic leaders. Advocates were concerned about the disparity between city and county schools and recognized the savings that would accrue from consolidation's increased efficiencies. Some Charlotteans might have realized the desegregation implications of this policy choice given the somewhat recent Supreme Court decision of Brown in 1954. But such implications received little public discussion. Just over 10 years later, given the legal conditions created by the Swann decision, consolidation facilitated desegregation. Given the size of Mecklenburg County, 524 square miles, families would need to move out of the county to avoid desegregation. While such moves were possible, the consolidated political structure constrained the agency of individuals seeking to avoid the court mandate, thus enhancing CMS' ability to effectively desegregate.

    Supreme Court decisions, specifically the cases from Brown (1954) through Swann (1971) were foundational for CMS' desegregation efforts.  Acts of congress are also important.  The 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act both facilitated desegregation. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provided increased aid to local districts that pursued desegregation while sections of the Civil Rights Act authorized the withholding of funds from segregated districts.  Such earlier equity-inspired federal education legislation contrasts with more recent federal education initiatives that place little emphasis on diversity. Since 1980, broad educational policies have moved from being equity-based (IDEA, Title IX, desegregation) to market-based approaches that include standards, accountability, high stakes testing, school choice, and increased local control.   ESEA, subsequently reauthorized as No Child Left Behind (2001) and more recently as Every Student Succeeds (2015), and the Obama Administration's Race to the Top initiative focus on school improvement strategies that are market-inspired reforms, including an emphasis on choice, standards, testing, and accountability. Research suggests that increases in high stakes testing (Nichols and Berliner 2008) and shifts in enrollment from traditional public schools in NC to charter schools (Ladd, Clotfelter, and Holbein 2015) are school improvement strategies that not only fail to improve outcomes, but also exacerbate segregation. Diverse schools not only improve outcomes for all students (Frankenberg 2007; Mickelson 2014; Mickelson, Bottia, and Lambert 2013; Mickelson and Nkomo 2012), they also can lower per pupil expenditures (Basile 2012; Orfield and Eaton 1996).

    Desegregation efforts in the 1970s reflected a political understanding that advanced the interests of both the local corporate class and the black community. The local corporate class supported school desegregation, and black political leaders mobilized votes in support of bond referenda needed to sustain economic development and elect pro-growth political candidates (Smith 2004). This alliance was a defining characteristic of Charlotte's urban regime through the 1970s and 1980s, and it played an important role in the election of pro-growth officials and the passage of bond referenda for roads, sewers, and other necessary infrastructure for growth. This alliance was exemplified by the election of Harvey Gantt in 1983 and 1985, the first black to be elected mayor of a large, predominantly white southern city.

    Local corporate elite benefitted from desegregation once it was implemented. Charlotte gained a national reputation as a progressive southern city.  Its tranquil race relations made Charlotte a good place in which to invest mobile capital and a destination where families could relocate and raise their children. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, national firms relocated their headquarters to Charlotte, bringing professionals and managers, and their families to Mecklenburg County.
    Although school desegregation facilitated development, when there was a conflict between the two, development typically trumped desegregation (Smith 2004). As early as 1979, observers noted that the predominantly white neighborhoods in the southern part of the county would make it increasingly more difficult to create racial balance in schools. Additionally, neighborhood school assignment plans pose challenges to desegregation efforts, particularly in communities such as Charlotte that have historically had high levels of neighborhood segregation. The explosive growth that occurred in the southern edges of the county in the 1980s exemplified this conflict. Schools, such as McAlpine Elementary, were built in response to this growth. The siting of such schools spurred more development, which in turn, created more imbalances. The siting of McAlpine and the subsequent suburban development that occurred resulted in a school with a 4% black population in 1995-1996 at time when blacks were almost 40% of CMS elementary school enrollment that year.

    The policy dynamics involved in the siting of McAlpine Elementary School illuminate the challenges of creating diverse schools in CMS, a district that in 2016 has more than 160 schools. The population of Mecklenburg County has grown rapidly, in part because of the robust economic development built upon the successes of desegregated education (Smith 2004). In 1950, 200,000 people lived in the county. The population is projected to be 1.3 million in 2030. Table 1 presents population growth in Mecklenburg County from 1990 through 2014 (United States Census 2015). What is noteworthy here is the enormous growth in the Hispanic, Asian, and foreign-born populations, relative to the growth among blacks and whites. Mecklenburg County's explosive growth and changing demographics contributed to the structural factors that have affected desegregation policies. 

Table 1: Population of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, by Race,
Ethnicity from 1990-2014




Foreign Born
Source: United States Census 2015
Note:  The foreign born population is not mutually exclusive of other population groups.

    At the height of desegregation, whites made up over 60% of CMS students. In 2015, nearly 70% of CMS' 160,000 students are Asian, Black, Latino/a, Native American, or mixed race individuals. Many new students are English language learners (ELL). Over 175 languages are spoken in CMS students' homes, complicating the design and delivery of appropriate language services to CMS' ELL population (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools 2015). 

The Interest Convergence Thesis

    Desegregation was instituted and maintained for decades by mutually beneficial alliances between corporate and civic leaders, leaders in the black community, and faith-based organizations. But the coalition that implemented and supported desegregation has dissolved in the past twenty years and as a consequence, the political and social scaffolding for desegregation education policy choices is much weaker.
    The weakening of this coalition illustrates the second theoretical point of this article, namely that Charlotte's resegregation history accords with a version of legal scholar Derrick Bell's (1980) interest convergence thesis paraphrased as follows:  Blacks' interest in racial justice is generally accommodated only when that interest converges with that of whites in policy-making positions. When desegregation advanced the interests of Charlotte's white corporate and political elites in the 1960s-mid 1980s, they supported it. Desegregation fostered the city's image as a good place to live and do business. The population swelled and economic development continued throughout this period. When desegregation began to conflict with development in the late-1980s, corporate leaders' support largely dissipated. And when development and school desegregation conflicted, development almost always won. When officials and developers made choices—where to locate new residential developments, scattered site public housing, sewer and water lines, or where to construct the southern route of I-485 Outerbelt—the interests of developers trumped the interests of facilitating and maintaining the highly successful desegregation plan (Mickelson, Smith, and Hawn Nelson 2015; Smith 2004).

    Bell's interest convergence thesis is clearly reflected in the development of Mecklenburg County's I-485 Outerbelt. Bell's thesis helps us interpret the history of the siting of the southern route of I-485 and how the selected route fueled the development of one of Charlotte's sprawling racially and socio-economically segregated suburbs. While the siting of I-485 spurred economic development of the southern region of Mecklenburg County, the decision had a negative impact on CMS' ability to comply with the desegregation mandate. Placing I-485 closer to the central part of the county would have facilitated desegregation; placing it farther away from the central city, hindered desegregation. Playing a key role in events that led to the Outerbelt's location was developer Johnny Harris who sought to develop his family's vast landholdings into Ballantyne, now colloquially referred to as a "suburb on steroids" that "sprang up out of nowhere around an interstate that didn't even exist twenty years ago" (Newsome 2012). In addition to donating land for the Outerbelt and other roads, Harris drew on his fundraising activities in a gubernatorial election to gain an appointment to the state's Board of Transportation and used this position to push for the construction of an Outerbelt route that would benefit the development of this "suburb on steroids." Ballantyne and nearby neighborhoods currently have some of the most racially and socioeconomically isolated white and high wealth schools in the county. 

So Why Did CMS Resegregate?

    Ironically, the success of the desegregation plan contributed to its demise. As discussed earlier, efforts by a coalition of corporate, civic, and religious elites, and leaders of the black community lead to economic development and explosive population growth. This growth was fueled by the dramatic influx of newcomers to Charlotte, which then created a new set of challenges. Many newcomers were unfamiliar with the history of desegregation efforts in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and did not share in the civic pride or understand the positive economic impact of desegregation, nor did they appreciate the educational benefits of diverse schools. Most newcomers were from outside of the south, and were accustomed to smaller, more racially and socioeconomically homogeneous school boundaries that they found in the consolidated and expansive school district.  This created a dramatically different schooling experience for newcomers to Charlotte, and many newcomers, such as most of the white plaintiffs in the Capacchione et al.  (1999) case, were dissatisfied, and challenged the policies of the district.

    By the early 1990s, the efforts of corporate leaders and developers were not aligned with those in support of desegregation efforts, and alliances unraveled. At the same time, the increasingly verbal assault on public education that arguably began with A Nation at Risk in 1983 fueled this discontent. This was most evident in the political mobilization of newcomers that orchestrated the 1988 defeat of incumbent CMS school board members who strongly supported school desegregation. Beginning in 1991-1992, the revamped school board took several actions that undermined desegregation. First and foremost, the school board chose a superintendent who promised to end mandatory busing. By the mid-1990s, voluntary participation in a controlled-choice magnet plan replaced the established mandatory desegregation plan. At this time, new schools were sited on land in virtually all white communities near the I-485 Outerbelt or in vacant land where few subdivisions existed. These new schools, in turn, fueled additional population growth and real estate development along the edges of the county, complicating desegregation efforts.

    As this abbreviated history of CMS' desegregation and resegregation suggests, there is no one policy, person or organization responsible for CMS' resegregation. The racial and SES composition of CMS schools reflects the complex political, economic, and social realities facing the community in 2015 and how the interplay between structure and agency over time generated the parameters within which decision makers made the policy choices that undermined a successful desegregation plan. That said, several identifiable dynamics are worth noting.

Housing Policy is Education Policy

   As is increasingly the case across the nation, when school systems use neighborhood-based student assignment policies, housing policy becomes school policy. Under a residential-based assignment plan, racially and SES-diverse neighborhoods will yield racially and SES-diverse schools. But, most of Mecklenburg County's neighborhoods, by and large, are not diverse in terms of their racial and SES compositions, although the county is more residentially integrated than it was in 1970s (Smith 2004). Figure 2 presents the spatial demographics of the residential population of Mecklenburg County by race in 2010.  It shows the extent of the residential racial segregation and why, given CMS' current pupil assignment policy choices, it is extremely difficult to create diverse schools if neighborhood boundaries serve as the primary criterion for pupil assignments.

Figure 2: Racial Dot Map of Charlotte-Mecklenburg

Source: 2010 Cenus, UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Shifting Spatial Demographics   

    Notably, the CMS school board has announced its intentions to revisit its pupil assignment plan in 2016 to engage issues of diversity and growth (Dunn 2015).  As mentioned earlier, the size of the district's student population has increased in the past several decades. The vast majority of Mecklenburg County's students still attend public schools including charters.  Charter schools tend to be more racially segregated than regular public schools (Ladd, Clotfelter, and Holbein 2015).  The county's percentage of students enrolled in private schools has remained fairly steady over the past three decades (North Carolina Division of Non-Public Instruction 2015). The greatest change in school-age population comes from community-level demographic shifts.  The shifts in the spatial demographics of Mecklenburg County's population are closely related to changing pupil assignments and contribute to the resegregation of the district. The proportion of Blacks in CMS has held constant, the proportion of Whites has decreased, while the proportions of Latinos and Asians have exploded. The relative growth of Latino and Asian students—and where these students live in Mecklenburg County—complicates designing pupil assignment plans for racial balance.

    Another layer of complication comes from the growth in the proportion of CMS students qualifying for free/reduced lunch (FRL). As Figure 3 illustrates, as of 2013, 54% of CMS students qualified for free/reduced lunches. Even if CMS were to approach school diversity by designing a student assignment plan using family SES, creating diverse schools will be challenging due to the relative size and spatial demographics of the low-income student population. A recently adopted policy, the community eligibility provision (CEP), treats all students in a school as eligible for FRL. CEP aims to eliminate the administrative burden of individual lunch applications at high-poverty schools (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture 2015).  Data on FRL-status are no longer reported for CMS students, as of 2014-2015 (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools 2015). These changes also mean that district-wide longitudinal comparisons of students living in poverty are no longer possible.

Figure 3.  Elementary School Socioeconomic Resegregation 1997-2013

Source: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools 1999-2013

Absent Corporate and Civic Leadership for Desegregation

    A third factor that contributes to CMS' resegregation is the absence of leadership among the corporate, civic, religious, and community groups that once championed desegregation in Charlotte.   The absent support from the corporate community on this issue is especially egregious given the massive benefits it reaped from school desegregation during the last third of the 20th century as Charlotte grew and prospered. But because desegregation is no longer needed to promote economic growth, most corporate elites currently do little to oppose resegregation or to promote diverse schools. In fact, corporate efforts during the past few years could be more accurately described as school improvement interventions aimed at making racially separate schools "equal." For example, since 2012 Charlotte corporate philanthropic efforts have funded an intervention to support failing racially isolated schools. One of these schools, West Charlotte High School, had a standardized test score passing rate below 30% in 2004 (NC Report Card 2015), and was chastised by Judge Howard Manning for committing ‘academic genocide.' The local corporate community's philanthropic effort, known as Project LIFT, is providing $55 million over 5 years to nine hypersegregated poor and non-white, low-performing schools, including West Charlotte. The Project's intention is to address the concentrated educational disadvantage that occurs in segregated schools by adding educational staff, academic interventions, and wrap-around community resources. While the efforts of Project LIFT and similar philanthropic efforts are well-intentioned and temporarily may relieve some educational inequities, findings from the Project LIFT: Year Two Report (2014) are inconclusive at best and at worst indicate minimal movement toward permanent solutions to educational disadvantages in the Project LIFT zone schools.  Importantly, however, efforts like Project LIFT signal corporate, civic, and educational leaders' acquiescence to segregated public education.

Shifts in Political Mobilization  

    The CMS board members and staff's abandonment of desegregation as a tool for educational equity and school improvement occurred simultaneously with the increased political mobilization of whites due to overcrowding in suburban schools. The overcrowding was a direct consequence of the rapid development of suburbs in Mecklenburg County, much of which was facilitated by the I-485 Outerbelt. At the same time, there was a marked decrease in political mobilization among blacks and other groups in support of desegregation.

National Enchantment with Market-Inspired Reforms

    CMS' resegregation began in a national policy environment that can be described as a growing enchantment with market-inspired reforms. Since the late 1980s, the education policy arena has experienced the ascent of market-inspired approaches to school reform that have supplanted earlier equity-oriented strategies. Bilingual education, desegregation, and compensatory education typified equity-oriented reform approaches since the middle of the last century. At present even federal equity-inspired policies like ESEA are infused with market principles.  No Child Left Behind refracted federal money for school improvement and equity through the prism of standards, testing, and accountability. The market approach to reform, to a large degree, also undergirds the Every Child Succeeds Act despite widely acknowledged failures of NCLB to either increase equity or improve outcomes (Nichols and Berliner 2011).
    The trend toward market-inspired reforms also includes rhetoric demeaning the public sector, especially educators and their professional organizations. Teacher unions are widely blamed for educational problems even though the nation's worst educational outcomes are found in nonunion states and the best occur in unionized states like Connecticut. Recent market-inspired and anti-teacher reforms in NC include efforts to eliminate tenure for public school teachers, elimination of pay increases for advanced degrees or experience, expansion of charter schools, and privatization of many education-related services (Fiske and Ladd 2014). The growth of charter schools in NC, for example, is fueled by conservative political ideology at the state level and mediated by state-level changes in educational structures. Charter growth was also encouraged by federal Race to the Top incentives and NCLB waivers (Trull 2015).

The Role of Social Purpose Politics in Creating CMS for Tomorrow

    Judge Potter's 1999 decision declaring CMS unitary became a structure that channeled the school board's agency as it designed a post-Swann pupil assignment plan. And then year after year, subsequent decisions about new assignment plans, locations for new schools and their catchment zones, and curricular and administrative reforms became the new structural parameters for the next set of decisions.  In a 2013 interview, one CMS school board member explained that immediately after Judge Potter's 1999 decision declaring CMS unitary
We as a district took the most conservative reading of the Potter decision and as a result, where we might have had things we could have done initially, we didn't do them. And then the further we got away from it [unitary status], the harder it was going to be to undo things.
    While CMS' ability to pursue desegregation may have been constrained by these larger historical choices and the subsequent political, demographic, and sociological conditions described in the previous section, the future pursuit of racially and socioeconomically diverse schools is not impossible. The leaders of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system can staunch or even reverse resegregation. In fact, in May 2015 the CMS school board announced plans to revisit pupil assignment specifically to address issues of diversity (Dunn 2015).

    Several strategies for increasing diversity emerge from this article's analyses.
  1. Leading by Example: Civic, corporate, religious, and educational leaders can embrace diversity by enrolling their own children in public schools.
  2. Revising CMS pupil assignment plan to prioritize diversity, along with stability of assignments, proximity to residence, and utilization of school capacities.  
  3. Emphasizing socioeconomic diversity because it is an effective, efficient tool for improving academic outcomes for all students (Basile 2012). 
  4. Building new schools in locations that facilitate diversity. Given the spatial demographics of Mecklenburg County's population (see Figure 2), this is a feasible approach that is also consistent with both Justice Kennedy's controlling opinion in Parents Involved in Community Schools (2007) and the Joint Guidance on pupil assignment that the Department of Education and Justice issued in December, 2011 to guide policy makers in designing pupil assignment plans consistent with PICS (U.S.
    Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice 2011).
  5.  Increasing strategic use of partial magnets. One in four CMS schools are partial or full magnets. If used effectively, partial magnets can draw a diverse student body and support learning for all students in a school (Hawn Nelson 2015).
  6. Encouraging state policies that incentivize charter schools to incorporate diversity into their missions, admissions, and curricula (Kahlenberg and Potter 2014).  As of 2012, three out of four charter schools in Mecklenburg County were racially and socioeconomically segregated (Clotfelter, Ladd, and Holbein 2015).
  7. Supporting coordinated approaches to housing, transportation, and education policy initiatives throughout the county.  Doing so will address the core issues underlying the education and housing policy nexus that either advances or hinders diversity in schools and neighborhoods.
  8. Acknowledging that the concentrated educational disadvantages inherent in segregated schools means that alone money spent in hypersegregated schools cannot bridge the race and SES opportunity gaps, and thus spending more money in segregated schools in lieu of school diversity cannot close achievement gaps absent the other initiatives, policies, and political mobilizations discussed above.
    This list of eight policy recommendations is based on decades of social, educational, and behavioral research about what does and does not work to close the opportunity to learn gaps that underlie race and SES achievement gaps. To implement any of the reforms above, Charlotte, or any community seeking to engage in similarly bold school reforms must have broad support from corporate, religious, civil, and community-based organizations to realize the benefits of greater political mobilization. To do this, a community will need to engage in social purpose politics.

Social Purpose Politics

    In his studies on school reform, Clarence Stone, probably contemporary political science's most influential urbanist, emphasized the importance of what he calls social purpose politics. He defines the concept as the ability of interested people to go beyond a "narrow understanding of their stake in the education system . . . [and] come together around a larger vision of what is at issue." That coming together, in turn, contributes to mobilization "in support of a communitywide cause" (Stone 1988:12).  The role of social purpose politics in school reform and desegregation is the third theme of this study. By all accounts, implementation of Charlotte's busing plan in the 1970s was just such a cause, and the success of its implementation reflects the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community's historical capacity for social purpose politics.
    There have been other moments of social purpose politics in support of public education throughout the district's three decade history of compliance with Swann.  One especially magisterial call to engage in social purpose politics came in a 2000 op-ed piece by a local minister urging support for a bond package shortly after Judge Potter declared CMS to be unitary and vacated the Swann desegregation order. Entitled "School Bonds Will Reveal If Charlotte Has a Soul," the article evokes the importance of empathy and reads like a textbook example of social purpose politics. "This issue asks us to feel the pain of every part of our city and calls us to exercise ‘soul,' our capacity to be related to the whole," it said, concluding by asking Charlotteans "to look beyond the welfare of their part alone to the welfare of the whole and support the bonds" (Shoemaker 2000). 

    Very little of that kind of politics characterizes Charlotte's political landscape today. Recent efforts at the state level by the Forward Together Moral Movement (organized by the North Carolina NAACP) and the Presbyterian Church appear to be a small step in encouraging clergy support for educational reform.  While desegregation of schools is not a specific component of the clergy's message to North Carolina policy makers, this slight shift in discourse at the state level could be a positive sign of a stirring amongst a previously dormant base to begin to advocate for change at the local level. Clergy and community leaders played a pivotal role in building social purpose politics around school assignment policies in the desegregation battles of decades past.  Given the important role religious institutions play in the city and the state's cultures, enlisting their efforts to help develop local social purpose politics would be an important first step.

    Another important version of this theme blends social purpose politics with political mobilization. This hybrid involves community activism focused on reintegrating schools in residentially diverse neighborhoods where elementary schools do not reflect their diversity.  Such a grassroots effort helped CMS's Shamrock Gardens Elementary School transform from a racially isolated low performing school to an academically improved integrating school recognized nationally by the Magnet Schools of America in 2014.  Members of the Plaza Midwood neighborhood group became a network of activists who not only enrolled their children in Shamrock Gardens, but also actively recruited other neighbors who previously avoided the local school.  At the same time, parent-activists mobilized to gain resources for their school. In particular, they lobbied for a gifted magnet program and top-notch educational leaders and teachers.  Together the educators and parent activists at Shamrock Gardens worked intensively with the CMS administration and the school's principal to successfully implement a gifted magnet program that, once successful, because the curricular and pedagogical model for all classrooms in the school.  Results of these efforts were not immediate. Rather, the efforts launched a success trajectory that took a decade to flourish. Although it is impossible to know whether these efforts will be a permanent success (after all, a school's teachers, administrators, parents, and students all change over time), early indications are that the Shamrock Gardens model is promising (Hawn Nelson 2015). Shamrock Gardens stands as an example of why efforts to build diverse schools from the ground up are as important as building them from the top down. Such efforts include promoting policies that support naturally diverse areas and expanding the use of partial magnets, but also spreading the simple message that if you believe in the importance of diversity, then you should send your child to a diverse school.


    The history of CMS' desegregation and resegregation from the 1970s to the present has been astutely characterized by Jeannie Oakes (2015) as more of a rejection of a policy success, than an educational reform failure. During Swann's 30-year time frame, the policy choices of educational, civic, and corporate leaders reflected the iterative interplay of their decisions (agency) within the parameters or boundaries (structures) shaped by the consequences of their predecessors' choices.  The unfolding of this structure/agency dynamic within the context of a federal system where local educational decisions are nested within the state and national context is a core theme of this article.  CMS's cycles of school desegregation and resegregation also demonstrate how local social purpose politics can shape educational policies.

    The history of CMS' resegregation reveals that beginning in the 1980s, decision makers embraced options that advanced economic development rather than the maintenance of the successful desegregation plan. Such choices are consistent with the article's second theme, Bell's interest convergence thesis, that holds Blacks' interests will be advanced by powerful Whites only to the extent that doing so also advances the latter's perceived interests.  Once desegregation was no longer needed to create a positive, stable business climate that could advance development of the metro area, the mainly white corporate and civic leadership abandoned desegregation. To be sure, they succumbed to the national fascination with market-inspired reforms like choice, standards, testing, and privatization that have yet to be successful as demonstrated by the failure of No Child Left Behind. Combined with the emerging conservative federal judicial climate, the striking growth and demographic changes in the population of Mecklenburg County, and the absence of pro-desegregation political mobilization among citizens and voters, school diversity almost disappeared from the policy discourse in CMS from 2002 to 2015. Notably, discussions during a spring 2015 school board meeting indicated that excellence, equity, and diversity will once again become a focus of CMS pupil assignment policy choices (Dunn 2015).

    CMS has been a bellwether twice in the nation's desegregation history. The Swann litigation paved the way for desegregation in many other districts, and CMS' experience provided a model of how a busing plan can successfully be implemented. For the same reason that CMS was a desegregation icon during the Swann era, the 1999 decision lifting the original Swann order—despite CMS' desire to remain under it—was a nationally recognized signal of how strongly committed activist federal judges were to abandoning judicial efforts to fulfill Brown's promises. These days, nobody can claim that CMS is a desegregation or diversity bellwether of any kind (Mickelson, Smith, and Hawn Nelson 2015).

    Some might dismiss the importance of resegregation, saying CMS is now a bellwether of another kind, a national leader in urban education as indicated by its receipt of the 2011 Broad Prize. Thousands of CMS personnel and students worked tirelessly to boost test scores and meet the Broad Foundation's expectations. Such commitment certainly deserves to be rewarded. But the Broad Foundation's approach to education reflects the wave of foundation-funded and market-driven school reform strategies that is sweeping over public education and jeopardizing the public in public education (Mickelson, Smith, and Hawn Nelson 2015; Ravitch 2013).
    Given the strong evidence that attending socioeconomically and diverse schools improves academic achievement, increases graduation rates, raises lifetime incomes, improves intergroup relations, decreases involvement with the criminal justice system, and are more cost-effective than programs that funnel additional resources to high-poverty schools, it's ironic that the bottom-line-conscious business executives, such as Eli Broad or Bill Gates, who are so eager to improve public education don't establish prizes for districts that reverse resegregation and pursue diversity.

    Even if that were to happen, for CMS to swim against the resegregation tide will take courage and political will. Doing so will also require sustained political mobilization across ethnic, race, and class lines for social purpose politics on behalf of creating diversity in CMS. Such efforts offer the promise of improving educational outcomes and saving money.  They could also be an example to other districts, perhaps even allowing CMS to once again be a bellwether.  The obligation to fulfill desegregation's moral imperative and the opportunity to reap diversity's benefits are goals as lofty, worthy, and cardinal in 2015 as they were in 1970. By any measure, racially segregated schooling was one of the most ambitious, large-scale, and fully implemented social experiments in the nation's history, and Jim Crow education undoubtedly harmed children and communities. Given that experiment's past monstrous failures, and moral (more accurately, immoral) implications, the burden is on those who eschew school diversity to provide a convincing explanation of why they think separate but equal can be successful in the twenty-first century. Absent such an explanation, shouldn't school desegregation—with its moral obligations, educational benefits, and its opportunities to reap the benefits of diversity—be atop the educational reform agenda of both Charlotte and the nation as a whole?


(1) This article draws heavily from Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte (Mickelson, Smith, and Hawn Nelson 2015).

(2) The dissimilarity index is a commonly used measure of segregation. In this figure it indicates the proportion of CMS elementary students who would have to change schools for every school’s racial composition to mirror that of the entire school system. The index ranges from 0, indicating complete integration, to 100, complete segregation.

(3) McAnulla (2002) provides an accessible account of the voluminous scholarly literature on the structure/agency relationship.  Much of this literature draws on the work of Anthony Giddens as exemplified in his The Constitution of Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984) and "Elements of the Theory of Structuration" in Contemporary Social Theory, ed. A. Elliot (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999). 


Basile, Marco. 2012.    "The Cost-effectiveness of Socioeconomic School Integration." in The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy, edited by R. Kahlenberg. New York: The Century Foundation.

Bell, Derrick A., Jr. 1980. "Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-convergence Dilemma." Harvard Law Review 93:518-533.

Billings,  Stephen , David Deming, and Jonah Rockoff. (2014). "School Segregation,  Educational Attainment, and Crime: Evidence from the End of Busing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg," Quarterly Journal of Economics 129 (1): 435-476.

Capacchione et al. v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 535 U.S. 986 (1999).

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. 2015. "Board of Education 2015-15 Budget Work Session.
Retrieved June 18, 2015 (

Dunn, Andrew. 2015. "CMS is Weighing Diversity in Plan." Charlotte Observer, May 27, Pp.A4.

Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA). 2015. Public Law 114-95, Amendment to Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Fiel, Jeremy E. 2013. "Decomposing School ‘Resegregation': Social Closure, Racial Imbalance, and Racial Isolation." American Sociological Review 78(5): 828-848.

Fiske, Edward B. and Helen F. Ladd. 2014. "What's Up with Education Policy in North Carolina." Retrieved June 18, 2015 ( content/
uploads/20  14/02/Whats-Up-in-NC-Feb-19-2014.pdf).

Frankenberg, Erica. 2007. Lessons in Integration: Realizing the Promise of Racial Diversity in American Schools. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.

Hawn Nelson, Amy. 2010. "Experiencing the Double-Edged Sword of Desegregation: Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Graduates from 1995-1998." Ph.D. Dissertation, College of Education, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Hawn Nelson, Amy. 2015. "A Long Path to Success." Pp.137-156 in Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte, edited by R. Mickelson, S. Smith, and A. Hawn Nelson. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Kahlenberg, Richard D., ed. 2012. The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy. New York: The Century Foundation Press.

Kahlenberg, Richard D., and Halley Potter. 2014. A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York: Teacher's College Press.

Ladd, Helen F., Charles T. Clotfelter, and John B. Holbein. 2015. The Growing Segmentation of the Charter School Sector in North Carolina. National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper no. 21078. Retrieved June 18, 2015

Linn, Robert L. and Kelvin G. Welner. 2007. Race-conscious Policies for Assigning Students to Schools: Social Science Research and the Supreme Court Cases. Washington, DC: National Academy of Education.

McAnulla, Stuart. 2002. "Structure and Agency," Pp. 271 in Theory and Methods in Political Science. 2nd Ed, edited by D. Marsh and G. Stoker. New York: Palgrave McMillian.

Mickelson, Roslyn A. 2001. "Subverting Swann: First- and Second-generation Segregation in Charlotte, North Carolina." American Educational Research Journal 38(2): 215-252.

Mickelson, Roslyn A. 2014. "The Problem of the Color Line in 21st Century Sociology of Education:   Researching and Theorizing Demographic Change, Segregation, and School Outcomes." Social Currents 1 (2): 157-165.

Mickelson, Roslyn A. 2015. "The Cumulative Disadvantages of First- and Second-generation Segregation for Middle School Achievement." American Educational Research Journal 52 (4): 657-692.
Mickelson, Roslyn A., Martha Bottia, and Rich Lambert. 2013. "A Meta-regression Analysis of the Effects of School and Classroom Composition on Mathematics Outcomes." Review of Educational Research 83: 121-158.

Mickelson, Roslyn A. and Mokubung Nkomo. 2012. "Integrated Schooling, Life-course Outcomes, and Social Cohesion in Multiethnic Democratic Societies." Review of Research in Education 36: 197-238.

Mickelson, Roslyn A., Stephen S. Smith, and Amy Hawn Nelson. 2015. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow:  School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

National Education Association. 1984. Three Cities That Are Making Desegregation Work: Report of a National Education Association Special Study. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, Human and Civil Rights.

Newsome, Melba. 2012. "There's Something about Ballantyne." Charlotte Magazine, December. Retrieved June 18, 2015 (

Nichols, Sharon L. and David C. Berliner. 2008. Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America's Schools. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB). 2001. Public Law 107-110, Amendment to Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. 2015. Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget. Retrieved June 18, 2015 (

North Carolina Division of Non-public Instruction. 2015. State of North Carolina Private Grade K-12 School Statistics. Retrieved June 18, 2015 (

North Carolina Report Card. 2015. West Charlotte High, 2003-2004 School Year. Retrieved June 18, 2015

Norton, Michael. and Kelly Piccinino. 2014. Project Lift: Year Two Report. Retrieved June 18, 2015 (

Oakes, Jeannie. 2015. "Back Cover Comment" in Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow:  School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte, edited by R. Mickelson, S.S. Smith, and A. Hawn Nelson. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Orfield, Gary and Susan E. Eaton. 1996. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: The New Press.

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).

Ravitch, Diane. 2013. Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Reardon, Sean F., Elena Grewal, Demetra Kalogrides, and Erica Greenberg. 2012. "Brown Fades: The End of Court-ordered School Desegregation and the Resegregation of American Public Schools." Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 31(4): 876-904.

Reardon, Sean F., Joseph P. Robinson, and Ericka S. Weathers. forthcoming. "Patterns and Trends in Racial/Ethnic and Socioeconomic Academic Achievement Gaps." in Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy. 2nd Ed, edited by H.A. Ladd and E.B. Fiske. New
York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Shoemaker, Stephen H. 2000. "School Bonds Will Reveal If Charlotte Has a Soul." Charlotte Observer, October 16, p.11A

Smith, Stephen S. 2004. Boom For Whom? Education, Desegregation, and Development in Charlotte. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Stone, Clarence N. 1998. "Introduction: Urban Education in Political Context." in Changing Urban Education, edited by C. N. Stone. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971).

Trull, S.L. 2015. "The Title Waive: A Policy and Legal Analysis of the 50 States' ESEA Waivers and their Implications for Federalism and Administrative Law Making in Education Policy." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation proposal. Public Policy Program. University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

United States Census, 2015. Mecklenburg County. Retrieved June 18, 2015 (

U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015. School Meals: Community Eligibility Provision. Retrieved June 18, 2015

U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice. 2011. Joint Guidance on the Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity and Avoid Racial Isolation in Elementary and Secondary Schools. Retrieved June 18, 2015

© 2016 Sociation Today

A Member of the EBSCO Publishing Group
Abstracted in Sociological Abstracts
Online Indexing and Article Search from the
Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)

Return to Home Page to Read More Articles

Sociation Today is optimized for the Firefox Browser

The Editorial Board of Sociation Today

Editorial Board:
George H. Conklin,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Robert Wortham,
 Associate Editor,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Rebecca Adams,

Bob Davis,
 North Carolina
 Agricultural and
 Technical State

Catherine Harris,
 Wake Forest

Ella Keller,
 State University

Ken Land,
 Duke University

Steve McNamee,

Miles Simpson,
 North Carolina
 Central University

William Smith,
 N.C. State University