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Take the middle road

By Dan Cassino
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 27, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Dan Cassino

Olde Providence Elementary school in Charlotte, N.C., is a shining example of what a public school can be. It is also under attack, and what happens there could reverse the hard-won victories of the civil rights movement.

Olde Providence is a magnet school, one of 45 operating in the Charlotte area. It focuses on teaching elementary-age children communications skills. To this end, it has a functioning television station, modern computers, and a well-trained, well-paid staff.

Parents are so involved that the PTA raised over $26,000 last year. In every category, the Charlotte Observer ranks it as one of the top schools in the area. For these reasons, lots of parents want their children to get in.

But, as is the case with many of the magnet schools in the area, there's a waiting list. Every year, a lottery is held to determine which children on the waiting list will be able to attend the school.

The attack on the school stems from how the lottery is held.

Like all schools in the Charlotte-Macklenburg school district, Olde Providence is exactly 40 percent black students, and 60 percent non-black. Prospective students are grouped according to their race: African-American or non-African-American. In 1996, Bill Capacchione, having just relocated to Charlotte, wanted his 6-year-old daughter, who is half-Guatemalan, to attend the school. She did not get in.

What may have rankled him even more was that while 112 students waited to fill seats in the non-African-American category, seven vacancies remained in the African-American seats.

This is not an unusual situation. At West Charlotte High, located in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, 81 African-Americans were out on a waiting list, as 49 seats reserved for non-African-Americans remained empty. In fact, 25 of the magnet schools in the Charlotte area turned away students of one race while reserving seats for students of another race.

Capacchione did what any red-blooded American would. He sued the Charlotte-Macklenburg Board of Education. The case was joined by six other white families and made its way to a U.S. District Court. The suit was then broadened by Judge Robert Potter into a full examination of Charlotte's integration plan.

It is ironic that this case attacks the integration plan of the district whose previous segregation opened the way for the busing of students.

In 1971, the Supreme Court decided in Swann v. Charlotte-Macklenburg Board of Education that federal courts could order actions to enforce desegregation laws. The federal orders that followed were widely responsible for the level of integration seen today.

Unfortunately, Charlotte is not the only example of these sorts of attacks on racial quotas at schools. San Francisco school officials, faced with a federal suit, agreed to end race-based admission to charter schools. In Boston, a magnet school was given a federal order to end racially conscious admission procedures.

Capacchione and the other plaintiffs in these cases are not the villains of the piece. They say that their children were denied admission to a school because of their race. They are right. If there is a villain, it is the overly rigid racial quotas in these schools.

In Charlotte, when one of the magnet schools does not have sufficient students of one race, they advertise in magazines, and on the radio, to try and attract more students of the desired type. They are also reported to have bent the rules in many cases, letting in students of the correct race, whether they had met the application deadline or not.

It is practices like these that so infuriate the Capacchiones of the world. They wish to get their children into a good public school close to their home but are turned away because there are not enough seats. They probably would be willing to accept this if they did not then see and hear advertisements asking for applications to fill empty seats.

If we want to avoid lawsuits like the one in Charlotte and keep public schools open to children of all races, admission policies must be made more flexible. If, one year, there are not enough non-African-American applicants to a school, the seats should be distributed to those students waiting for admission. It is certain that teachers can find another use for the money now spent on advertising.

Now, the fight between the schools and the parents is all or nothing. If we wish to preserve the hard-won battles of the last generation, we must take the middle road.