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Watch Out For That Cliff! 

A county on the edge

It's like watching one of those movies where the Hollywood starlet barrels toward the edge of a cliff you can see, but she can't. Every year around this time, I close my eyes, heart pounding, teeth gnashed, and rip open the big manila envelope.

Inside are a set of numbers so important to this county's future that those in power don't publicly acknowledge they exist. Well, at least not in the way I'm about to explain them to you.

The numbers represent the school system's 20-day enrollment numbers by race. For years, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have been dangling over the edge of the cliff county leaders refused to see coming, holding on with one hand like that Hollywood starlet.

Since 2001, CMS had added about 20,000 additional kids to its rolls. But while the numbers of students of every other race have exploded, the big secret that no one dares speak of is that the total number of white kids in the system has stayed almost exactly the same. In 2001, there were 46,749. This year, there are 46,741.

Of the roughly 5,000 kids CMS added this year, just 189 were white. Compare that to Union County next door, which added 1,800 white kids this year while the counties around us added a total of nearly 4,000 and you begin to get a picture of what's happening here. White middle and upper-middle class parents are bypassing our school system by the thousands.

This year, just 35.4 percent of the kids in the system were white. That would make sense if it mirrored what our county looks like, but it doesn't come close. Our county is 62.4 percent white. What it all adds up to is a staggering commentary on middle and upper-middle class white abandonment of a school system that would be racially and economically diverse - and stable - if its demographics mirrored those of this county.

What's happening here is that people of all kinds are moving here, but white middle and upper class newcomers with kids are overwhelmingly choosing to live outside this county and to send their kids to school there. Others are leaving the county when their kids reach school age.

When these parents bypass Mecklenburg County's schools, they leave in their wake schools that now have high concentrations of minorities and poverty, formerly vibrant schools that increasingly struggle to recruit good teachers. Other parents then flee the neighborhoods these schools serve and it becomes a vicious cycle.

Contrast this with Wake County, N.C., where the school population actually looks like the county population racially and economically. Wake's schools have significant levels of poverty, too, but because the school system hasn't alienated an entire racial and economic category of parents, its schools are almost all economically and racially balanced, with workable blends of middle-class, affluent and poor children. The county, which has similar demographics to Mecklenburg, spends about $1,000 less per student and posts higher test scores. Last year, Wake's African-American students posted average test scores 18 points higher than their Mecklenburg counterparts.

Meanwhile, Mecklenburg County struggles to cope with an increasing number of schools where more than 70 percent of the children are minority and poor. According to a recent Charlotte Observer article, one in three kids in South Charlotte now go to private schools.

This year, when I ripped open the manila envelope, I breathed a sign of relief. The plunge didn't come. CMS held on to the side of the cliff, if only barely. The percentage of white students in the system - which was more than 50 percent less than a decade ago - may have dropped again, but the raw total stayed the same. A lot of the county's middle-class parents are still holding on, giving the system one last chance. That means we're not in the second phase of white flight yet, the one where white parents start pulling their kids out of the schools in large numbers, giving up and moving out of the county. Across the country, that's generally followed by what's called "bright flight," the phase where middle-class black families pull their kids out of the schools and cross the line too, leaving behind a mostly poor system.

That in turn creates zip code after zip code of formerly attractive neighborhoods where property values don't rise and crime does. If this were Detroit or some crumbling rust belt city, this might make some kind of sense. In a vibrant, thriving metropolis like Charlotte, it's baffling.

The plan all along here, which I agree with, is to turn Charlotte into the kind of cool, hip place that attracts young professional creative types - the kind of educated self-starters who give the finger to the corporate world and start their own cool, hip businesses, which they later sell for millions. The problem is that when they put together their marketing strategies, the folks at the Charlotte Chamber didn't stop to consider that like everyone else, these young creative types tend to breed after a few years, and might actually want to send their kids to school here.

What we need is a new plan - and an acknowledgment that this problem actually exists.

We can't afford another year of CMS dangling from the cliff while this county's leadership looks the other way. Courting these parents and keeping them in the system is critical. Let's start now.

Got a story idea? E-mail Tara at

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