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Discrimination, CMS style 

Charlotte–Mecklenburg Schools sure has a strange definition of discrimination. To understand it, you can't listen to what school administrators say. You've got to watch what they do.

Take a look at the fate of three programs recently, and you'll see it in action. Last week, construction magnate C.D. Spangler made a bizarre offer of a $1,000 scholarship to every black male who graduates from West Charlotte High School. If you've got the wrong equipment, if you're a black female from the same neighborhoods that feed the school, to hell with you. Hispanic students at the school actually fail to graduate at a higher rate than black students do, but to hell with them, too.

Spangler can do whatever he wants with his money, and if he gave it away for race- and sex-based scholarships through a private fund to anyone who showed up with a diploma without involving the school system bureaucracy directly, that would be fine with me. Instead, Spangler had all the CMS brass, especially superintendent Peter Gorman, practically peeing in their pants over the program. Gorman gushed about the idea in the Charlotte Observer. Spangler took a photo-op media tour around town, and was featured on the front of the CMS Web site.

All of this without the slightest concern over whether this was fair to those who "don't qualify," or what sort of message it might send if the school system backed it.

Meanwhile, last month, the school system did away with a high honors program at Bailey Middle School in Cornelius. System leaders were apparently so clueless about what's going on around them that they didn't realize that Bailey's former principal, who had been given greater autonomy due to her success with student achievement by the district, had authorized it. The program had one single criterion: students had to test in the top 5 percent of their class to attend. It was income, race and gender neutral. The goal, God forbid, was to challenge these kids beyond what a regular honors course could do.

Oh, the horror. CMS administrators told both me and WBTV's Dedrick Russell that the program had to go because it "discriminates" -- yes, they actually used that word -- against those who could get in but didn't. So how many students qualified but were excluded, I asked in a follow-up e-mail to CMS spokespeople Kathleen Johnson and LaTarzja Henry, and why?

None, they answered back. Everyone who tested in the top 5 percent was accepted into the program. After a long e-mail exchange with administrators and much twisting of words by the same, it became clear that the students this program "discriminated" against were those who didn't or couldn't test in the top 5 percent -- in other words, those who didn't qualify.

And something else became clear, too. At CMS, recognizing, rewarding and nurturing raw academic talent is considered to be discriminatory and a thing to recoil from. It was so controversial that the system pulled the plug on the program immediately once bureaucrats discovered it. (These would, no doubt, be the same bureaucrats baffled by our inability to compete academically with students in China, who actually celebrate academic talent.)

CMS spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on programs based on students' socioeconomic backgrounds and poor academic achievement or combinations of the two. That's fine. But if the Bailey program discriminates, how is that programs based on lack of achievement aren't discriminatory? Or programs based on other factors that aren't academic at all, like income level? These programs exclude students from getting extra help if they don't qualify. How is that fair?

The system spends tens of millions annually on academic booster programs -- many of which fail but continue to operate -- yet the system recoils in horror from the only program of its kind to nurture the top of the class. No wonder parents are fleeing over the county line as fast as their U-Hauls will take them to get their kids away from this school system. "Prepare for greatness," the system's slogan says. Yup ... as long as no one actually achieves it.

Now consider just one of the other programs CMS will soon offer, ironically at West Charlotte High School. The program, which is currently being launched, is for students as old as 16 to 21. Most are still in the ninth grade, which means they lack the time to acquire enough credits to graduate by age 22, the state cut-off. Administrators want to move them to a special voluntary off-campus program to try to help them get GEDs or into job training. These students have been a source of controversy at the school for years with teachers and administrators who say they are a bad influence on students who are the proper age for their grade, and that many of them come to school to deal drugs and rarely attend or disrupt class.

I have no problem with a program like this because it makes sense to get these students off campus and isolate them. But by the Bailey standard, isn't it discriminatory? It is based entirely on academic success in that you have to fail to qualify. Not just fail, but fail so badly you are at the very bottom of your class. It is colorblind and sex and income neutral.

Yet it was launched a few weeks ago with glowing newspaper articles. Something is terribly wrong here.

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