Reporters Discuss Hurdles to Closing Achievement Gap

For many public school systems, closing the achievement gap between white and Asian students and minorities is a top priority for the academic year. But a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, which prevents public schools from using race to determine enrollment, could thwart these efforts. Two education reporters offer analysis.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: the price of desegregating the schools. Was it worth it? One commentator shares her view. That's next.

But first, we continue our back to school conversations this week with a look at two issues affecting schools nationwide. Many are deciding how to apply the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limits the use of race in making school assignments and Charlotte school officials have already faced that dilemma. And in New Orleans, a decimated public school system is still struggling to recover after Hurricane Katrina. Some believe that charter schools offer one answer.

To talk about all of this, we've invited two education reporters to join us. Darran Simon is an education reporter at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. He joins us from New Orleans. Also with us is Ann Helms. She writes about education at The Charlotte Observer and she joins us from Charlotte, North Carolina. Welcome, both of you.

Mr. DARRAN SIMON (Education Reporter, The Times-Picayune): Thank you for having me.

Ms. ANN HELMS (Education Reporter, The Charlotte Observer): Hi. Nice to be here.

MARTIN: And Darran, let's begin with you. Yesterday was a big day for New Orleans schools. It's been two years since Hurricane Katrina. Last year's school opening was very troubled, as I understand it, teacher shortages, lots of foul ups. How did it go this year?

Mr. SIMON: It would seem that things went fairly well this year. You know, I mean, there were attainments from last year in terms of they had enough teachers. They had technology in classrooms. They had buildings that were furbished. There were classes in module classrooms. But, I mean, but there were things and there were follow-ups in a sense that - I mean, buses didn't work well in many cases in the sense that were registration SNAFUs. But I think things have improved drastically from last year, but it seems as if the district has a long way to go but it's still fairly early to tell just in terms of how things will turn out.

MARTIN: And this is called the Recovery School District, correct?

Mr. SIMON: Yes.

MARTIN: And it serves about a third of public school students, correct?

Mr. SIMON: Yes, it serves about a third of public school students. I mean, one thing that's really interesting about - just about education, now this is probably one of the most transformed or one of the most interesting places to cover. Because if you think about it, before the storm, there were 128 public schools, and that's serving about 56,000 students. And then you had the storm and you had a massive state takeover of about 107 failing schools. So now post-Katrina, essentially what you have is a system of schools. There are roughly 34 public schools by the Recovery School District. There are about 40 charter schools and about five traditional schools run by the Orleans Parish School District, which ran the entire district. So completely different night and day, and especially it's a lot more charter friendly now.

MARTIN: Exactly. I was going to ask that. It's a huge increase in the number of charter schools.

Mr. SIMON: Yeah.

MARTIN: How did that happen so fast? Then we're going to bring you in, Ann. I haven't forgotten you.

Ms. HELMS: Okay.

MARTIN: But how did that happen so quickly?

Mr. SIMON: You know, essentially, what happened is that how there was a great support from state for charter schools, and also a great support in the state recovery district. So, you know, you have support from the district for charter schools, and the whole idea was - you know, the whole idea was to charter many, many schools and that didn't really work out. And actually so, you know, you had various organizations coming in one by one, one by one, and eventually, it changed from just a few charters to more than 40 charters. Essentially, support wasn't different from many other urban districts as how that came on board, essentially.

MARTIN: Okay. I want to talk a bit more about that in a couple of minutes. But first, I want to go to Ann Helms in Charlotte. The other big story - in education in June, the Supreme Court further limited the way public school systems can use race to determine enrollment, and many school systems are trying to figure out how to comply with this. But the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system - it's a county-wide system - stopped using race to determine school assignment in 2002. And how did that happen? Why did - why was Charlotte ahead of the curve on this, and what's been the result?

Ms. HELMS: Well, Charlotte-Mecklenburg - which as you mentioned is a countywide district - had been under court orders to desegregate since 1970 and had taken a good deal of pride as a community in being the city that made desegregation work. It wasn't perfect. It wasn't always smooth. But the community leaders had decided that rather than dig in and fight desegregation, they were going to make it work here.

A lot of changes - there were magnet schools, a number of magnet schools added in the 1990s with specialized programs from performing arts to international baccalaureate to foreign language immersion - most of these were located in schools in predominantly black, lower income neighborhoods designed to pull in white and affluent families. And not every magnet school was successful, but for the most part, they were. And there were racial quotas there, which were based on the district balance at the time, which was 40 percent black, 60 percent non-black.

So in the late 1990s, some white parents filed a lawsuit because their children had applied for these magnets and were denied a seat. Meanwhile, seats are being held open for black students. And these families contended that the era of forced desegregation should be over, that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had, in fact, desegregated, and it was time for a race-blind system. And students should be admitted to these programs based on their interest, not on the color of their skin. And they prevailed at the federal court level. The first trial court judge actually ordered - not only said that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools does not have to be under court orders to desegregate, but cannot use race then in student assignment.

Now he was ultimately overturned on that point on appeals. But the upshot of this was that the school district, which was actually fighting to maintain racial quotas, racial balance as some form of formal desegregation, the school district lost that case and had to come up with a new student assignment plan.

MARTIN: Now obviously, the concern - the people who opposed the Supreme Court or concerned about the Supreme Court decision. Their fear is that schools will re-segregate, or that many schools are pretty much segregated anyway, that there will be no further impetus to produce a more diversity in the student population. Have those fears been realized in Charlotte? Have the schools re-segregated?

Ms. HELMS: Yes. It's kind of hard to get around that. There certainly are still schools that reflect significant diversity. There are still families - white, black, Hispanic, all races - that seek diverse schools, but that's an ever-shrinking number. You have - tend to have in the suburbs majority white low-poverty schools that are considered highly desirable that became very crowded as soon as they launched their new plan, which was called the Choice Plan and it was an odd combination of neighborhood school assignments, significant magnet options. And initially, they also let families request assignments in other neighborhood schools.

So you sort of had a choice wave that rippled outward. People tried to get out of the most high-poverty, low-scoring schools and into sort of the next year, so you had extreme crowding in the suburbs. We have - you don't have many lily-white schools. Even the mostly white schools have minority representation. What we do have now a significant number of schools where there are few or even no white faces. Those schools tend to be very high-poverty. Many - not all of them, but many of them - are very low-performing academically. Many of them are in nice new buildings. There was a recognition…

MARTIN: But were they before? But were they before?

Ms. HELMS: Pardon?

MARTIN: Were they low-performing before? I guess what I'm asking you, has there been some deterioration in the educational experience that some kids are experiencing, or was it just nothing has changed?

Ms. HELMS: Well, there's a lot of back and forth on the community here. And the people who say that this is a bad thing would accurately say that if you look at these schools that are mostly poor, that are mostly minority, they are the bottom tier, and that perhaps there's a school, their scores are even lower. But if you look at the system as a whole and you look at scores for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, for minority students, for Hispanic students, those scores have not dropped. They have, in fact, increased. Now there still remain - the gaps here, as many places, remain profound, but there is no sign that black students or low-income students or Spanish-speaking students as a group took a dive after this big student assignment shakeup.

MARTIN: Now, Darran, the Supreme Court decision doesn't necessarily affect New Orleans, which was a pretty - which is a largely African-American school system anyway, right?

Mr. SIMON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So what accounts for is this tremendous interest in the charter school? Was it just a sense that the existing district - the existing system wasn't working?

Mr. SIMON: You know, it seems as if folks wanted to try something different, try something new. There was definitely support, I guess that in terms of from the state. I mean, you know, there was support from national organizations and I think parents were open to trying something new.

I think with the charter schools, you know, I mean, there are two camps. I mean, there are those who say charter schools are the end-all, and that charter schools essentially are best way to go. There are some who are not really sure about it, because it's a fairly new movement. There are some who are sort of lukewarm about it. Some of them who favored the charters will take every student, and they frown upon the charters that are very selective enrollment charters.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. Do the charters - what is distinctive about the charters? Do they offer special educational opportunities, like a performing arts focus or business focus? Or is it simply a matter of the governance, that they operate under different rules for governance, that they perhaps can hire and fire more easily than the other schools?

Mr. SIMON: You know, it's both in terms of, you know, the principles that I've talked today say that they liked the control in terms of being able to hire their staff. They like to control of being able to craft the curriculum, and they can offer, you know, various other programs that may not be offered in the charter schools. So it's both.

One thing this year is that the state district, they are trying very hard to improve the system, because like I said, last year was an abysmal year. So this year, you know, they're trying to do things, basic things, that is like make sure there are enough textbooks, make sure there is enough technology. You know, it's the whole notion of the - about Paul Vallas, who is the school chief of the school district, and it's to try to blur the lines between the charters and traditionals. Time will tell to see whether that happens.

MARTIN: Ann, and how open is Charlotte to the idea of charter schools? Does that movement taken place there as well?

Ms. HELMS: Well, North Carolina is a state where the state government has a lot of control of education. It provides about 60 percent of the funding, and therefore it sets a lot of the rules. And charter schools have to be granted a charter by the state. And North Carolina decided they wanted to try this. They thought there were some advantages, but they didn't want to go whole hog.

They didn't want an explosion of charter schools, so there are only 100 charters available statewide. And about a dozen of those charter schools are in the Charlotte area, and they range from charters that are catering to gifted students, to charters that cater to at-risk students. But to get a new charter is a fairly long political process. It happens when one of the existing charters, for some reason, stops functioning and another charter becomes available. So…

MARTIN: So it's like (unintelligible) in New York, you know, it's limited number.

Ms. HELMS: Exactly.

MARTIN: Exactly. You know, and while all of this is going on, in fact, in both of your cities, there is all - there's a new element, which is immigration. And in Charlotte and immigration - immigrants mostly from Mexico and from other Latin American countries, as I understand it, are now a new factor in determining sort of the diversity in the system. So where are these - where is this community enrolling their children? How do their desires and how does this community factor into this whole conversation about diversity in schools?

Ms. HELMS: The Hispanic community as a whole has not been very vocal. This is a community that, again, goes back generations, viewing itself as a black-and-white school system. And so that dialogue, for better or for worse, is very entrenched, carries a lot of history with it. The Spanish-speaking family sometimes, there is a language barrier. I think sometimes, there is a cultural issue that they are less used to engaging with their government and making demands. And so they, in general, tend to go to their neighborhood schools.

There is one magnet school that's a dual immersion Spanish-English that draws a lot of those families. They tend not to complain as much. They are there, and there are very real present and certainly throughout our community, there is a growing demand for bilingual everything, including teachers and school staff.

MARTIN: Okay. Interesting.

Ms. HELMS: Not as much so apart of the political dialogue.

MARTIN: I see. Thank you. And Darran, can I hear just very briefly from you on this? How is immigration factor into this conversation about diversity?

Mr. SIMON: Sure. There is a growing Hispanic community here, and actually, there was one charter school because there were nine new charter schools this year. One of the nine opened, and it caters primarily to the Hispanic community, many or some of them who haven't been in school, you know, for the past year or so. So there's a growing need. There's one school that has opened, catering primarily to that population, so that's how that sort of playing into the dynamics of the school system.

MARTIN: Oh. Really interesting. Thank you both so much. Darran Simon writes about education at the Times Picayune. He joined us from New Orleans. Ann Helms is an education reporter at the Charlotte Observer. She joined us from Charlotte, North Carolina. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. HELMS: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

Mr. SIMON: Thank you.

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