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Stop the Bleeding 

Suburbs should grab the school bonds olive branch

Numbers don't lie. Our school system is bleeding white kids, and what started as a trickle in the late 1990s has now officially become a hemorrhage. The first month's enrollment figures are in for Mecklenburg County and the counties around us, and the story they tell is a stark one.

Virtually all the growth in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' student population this year was either African-American (2,417) or Hispanic (2,401). The only racial category in which enrollment is declining in our school system is Caucasian. Despite the booming growth in this county and region, the school system lost another 400 white kids this year.

Where they went becomes pretty obvious when you look at the enrollment numbers in other counties. Last year, the surrounding counties enrolled 2,061 more white children than they did the year before. This year, they enrolled 4,033 more than they did last year. The fact that the number doubled in a single year is a mind-boggling commentary on what parents with the means to leave our school system or bypass it completely think of CMS. That CMS -- a district with 123,000 students -- somehow managed to lose white kids in a period of high population growth, while Union County's schools -- with an enrollment of 30,000 -- enrolled an additional 1,700 should set off alarm bells.

It's not that white children aren't moving here with their parents. They are. But in a trend that professor David Armor, director of George Mason University's School of Public Policy, first noticed last year, many white parents who move here to work in Charlotte are bypassing Mecklenburg County entirely and buying houses in surrounding counties. As the trend picks up steam, it also appears that some who settled in Mecklenburg are moving out of the county when their children reach school age to avoid enrolling them in our system.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, this trend is having a devastating effect on diversity in our school system, in particular on the kids left behind. As advocates for minorities and low-income children remind us, majority minority schools with high concentrations of poverty have little chance of attracting or maintaining quality teachers because of those teachers' entrenched racial stereotypes.

Over the past decade, white enrollment has plunged from 54 percent to just 37.6 percent this year, down from 39.7 percent last year. The devastating impact of that plunge is becoming more and more obvious every day. Yet despite this, most of our elected leaders have resigned themselves to having an "urban system" -- code for a system that is high poverty and majority minority. These leaders' new line is essentially that they are helpless to stop this, and that we need to accept this new reality as well as the increased costs of educating kids in high-poverty, majority minority schools.

That is, of course, a load of crap.

There is one critical difference between Mecklenburg County and most of the other big "urban" districts public officials like to compare our school system to. Unlike CMS, those systems draw from communities where the majority of the residents are both minority and poor; think Detroit. That's simply not the case in this county. We have enough diversity to achieve balance.

Sixty-five percent of the residents of this county are white and the majority of the people in this county are not poor. They're just too damned alienated, and fed up with a system whose leaders have spent the last decade snubbing them, to play the game anymore. And it's those people whose absence has created a de facto urban system where one should not exist.

There is a glimmer of hope, though. For the first time in a decade, school leaders have put up a school bond package in which more than half of the new school construction, renovations, repairs and additions are in overflowing suburban areas. Most of these suburban projects are in the districts of the politicians who are opposing the bonds, which baffles me. At the same time, money is also being spent on mid-range schools convenient to both the suburbs and the inner city. It's about time.

Of course, if the bonds pass, politicians could take it as a sign that everything is just peachy and allow the same bureaucrats to continue driving the system into the ground. But if they don't pass, if suburban voters don't grab the only olive branch that's been extended their way in years, the pissing contest will continue, the schools will overflow, and white enrollment in surrounding counties will double again next year, leaving a growing minority population trapped in schools that become more segregated each year.

Nobody wins that way.

Local leaders have only a small window of opportunity left to face the fact of white flight from our schools and tackle it. Passing the bonds on Nov. 8 is a good first step to take.

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