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Review of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte

Ayscue, J. B. (2016, March 16). Review of Yesterday, today, and tomorrow: School desegregation and resegregation in
Charlotte by R. A. Mickelson, S. S. Smith, & A. Hawn Nelson (Eds.). Education Review, 23.
March 16, 2016 ISSN 1094-5296
Mickelson, R. A., Smith, S. S., & Hawn Nelson, A. (Eds.). (2015).
Yesterday, today, and
tomorrow: School desegregation and resegregation in Charlotte
. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard Education Press.
Pp. xi + 260 ISBN: 978-1-61250-756-9
Reviewed by Jennifer B. Ayscue
University of California, Los Angeles
United States
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS)
was once recognized as a national model of
successful school desegregation; however, over
the past four decades, CMS has largely
resegregated by race and class. Yesterday, Today,
and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and
Resegregation in Charlotte takes a multidisciplinary
approach to analyzing the district’s
transformation. By assembling scholars of
history, sociology, political science, social
geography, economics, public policy, law, and
education, as well as practicing attorneys and
educators, this edited collection provides a
cohesive analysis of CMS’s complex journey
from desegregation to resegregation. In doing
so, the authors highlight the way in which
“yesterday’s agency—both what was done right
and what was done poorlybecame structures
that constrain our choices today and
tomorrow” (p. x).
This volume would be useful to a wide
range of audiences, including scholars,
Education Review /Reseñas Educativas
policymakers, educators, and concerned
citizens who seek to gain a deeper
understanding of the structures and choices
that shape desegregation efforts and education
reform. Most especially, this volume compiles
essential knowledge for members of the
Charlotte community.
The editors, Roslyn Arlin Mickelson,
Stephen Samuel Smith, and Amy Hawn
Nelson, are particularly well-positioned to
guide the reader through this analysis.
Mickelson, a professor of sociology and public
policy at University of North Carolina at
Charlotte; Smith, a professor of political
science at Winthrop University; and Hawn
Nelson, the Director of Research for the UNC
Charlotte Urban Institute and the Director of
the Institute for Social Capital, Inc., have deep
and long-standing professional and personal
ties to CMS. Their prolific research has
explored political and economic dimensions of
school desegregation, the effects of school
desegregation, and the development of second-
generation segregation within diverse schools.
Their work is also informed by 30 years of life
experience as a student, a teacher, and a school
leader in CMS (Hawn Nelson) and as parents
of CMS students and expert witnesses in the
1999 reopening of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg
Board of Education (Mickelson and Smith). It is
with this background that the editors express
their appreciation for the hard work of many
individuals in Charlotte and “deeply regret that
CMS is so much an embodiment of the social
science record and the judicial principle that
separate is not equal” (p. 174).
Throughout the volume, there is a
common theme of the relationship between
structure—“the conditions that ‘define the
range of actions available to actors’”—and
agency—“individual or group abilities
(intentional or otherwise) to affect their
environment” (p. 7). Using both qualitative and
quantitative methods, the authors explore how
past actions become structures that either
constrain or expand subsequent choices. In
particular, they underscore the ways in which
the iterative relationship between structure and
agency has shaped desegregation and
resegregation in CMS.
In introducing the collection, the
editors provide an overview of numerous
nested structures that either limit or aid the
desegregation efforts of school districts,
highlighting the role of these structures in
CMS. They include conditions that result from
federal, state, and local decisions as well as
conditions created by the economy,
demography, political and social climate, and
philanthropic foundations.
Federal court decisions, such as Brown
v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which
ruled that segregated schools are unequal, and
Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education
(1971), which allowed for busing as a tool for
desegregation, facilitated desegregation efforts
in the past. Acts of Congress, such as the 1964
Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Elementary and
Secondary Education Act, also supported
desegregation efforts. Yet more recent legal
decisions, such as Parents Involved in Community
Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007), and
federal initiatives, including the No Child Left
Behind Act of 2001 and Race to the Top, have
constrained desegregation efforts. State
constitutions and actions of state courts, such
as North Carolina’s Supreme Court ruling in
Leandro v. State (1997) that guaranteed students
the right to a sound basic education, offer
promise within a more restrictive federal legal
framework. State legislatures and governors
create structures that then enhance or
constrain agency. Past choices about brick-and-
mortar structures, such as the location of
roads, schools, and residential development,
create structures that influence present-day
agency. CMS’s political structure as a
consolidated, county-wide district also plays a
significant role in the district’s desegregation
The context in which CMS exercises its
agency has changed. The economy, particularly
the high poverty rate for children and growing
economic inequality, impacts decision-making.
Demographic changes have created a more
multiracial and linguistically diverse population.
Review of Yesterday, today, and tomorrow by J. B. Ayscue
There has also been a shift in the normative
climate for public policy, from an equity-based
approach to a market-based approach. Finally,
the increasingly influential role of think tanks
and foundations shapes the direction of
education policy nationwide and in CMS. The
impact of these structural elements is woven
throughout the volume, building a complex
and comprehensive picture of the interaction
between structure and agency in CMS’s journey
from desegregation to resegregation.
The authors inform our understanding
of CMS’s transformation by offering various
levels of analysis, with chapters focusing on the
city of Charlotte, the school district, selected
CMS schools, and the state. Chapters 2, 7, and
8 examine changes in Charlotte. In Chapter 2,
Smith explores Charlotte’s political economy,
highlighting the contrasting trends in
increasing development and decreasing
desegregation. In Chapter 7, Liebowitz and
Page analyze families’ residential choices,
finding that after CMS terminated
desegregation efforts, white families chose to
move to areas with greater shares of white
students than existed surrounding their
previous residences. In Chapter 8, Plaisance,
Morrell, and McDaniel document demographic
shifts toward a more multiracial and
multicultural community as well as greater
linguistic diversity. In doing so, they emphasize
the importance of reconceptualizing the black-
white paradigm of diversity and also revising
policies for English Language Learners.
Chapters 3, 4, and 9 provide in-depth
case studies of CMS schools. In Chapters 3
and 4, Grundy followed by Mickelson, Smith,
Southworth, and Trull describe the process of
transformation in West Charlotte High School
through segregation, desegregation, and
resegregation, demonstrating how post-Swann
programmatic responses have largely ignored
the school’s hypersegregation. In Chapter 9,
Hawn Nelson explores the sustained efforts
that led to the successful turnaround of
Shamrock Gardens Elementary School over a
10-year time period. Although it remains a
high-poverty, racially segregated school,
Shamrock Gardens has improved its academic
record, transformed its school climate and
school culture, and is beginning to attract more
diverse families. Hawn Nelson suggests that
because of this school’s trajectory, it offers a
feasible model for school reform in CMS and
perhaps other districts.
Chapters 5, 6, and 10 place CMS’s
history within a broader legal, political, and
demographic context. In Chapter 5, Clotfelter,
Ladd, and Vigdor analyze between- and within-
school segregation trends at both the district
and state level. In Chapter 6, Parcel, Hendrix,
and Taylor compare the political, legal, and
demographic conditions in CMS with those in
Wake County, another large North Carolina
school district with a strong record of
desegregation history. This useful contrast
demonstrates how various differences in
structures and agency, including the length of
time spent pursuing desegregation, the point at
which each district became majority-minority,
and the political will of each community, led to
divergent student assignment policies. In
Chapter 10, Dorosin and Largess trace
developments in federal and state law,
explaining how the North Carolina
constitution and Leandro offer some promise
for challenging segregation in the state’s
schools. In fact, in August 2015, since the
printing of this volume, a lawsuit invoking
Leandro was filed against the Board of
Commissioners in a different North Carolina
county, claiming that the racial segregation of
students into three separate school districts
violates the students’ constitutional right to a
sound basic education (Silver et al. v. Halifax
County Board of Commissioners, 2015).
Prior to offering their
recommendations, Smith, Mickelson, and
Hawn Nelson succinctly summarize the major
causes of resegregation in CMS. Swann allowed
busing as a tool for desegregation in 1971, but
when the case was reopened in 1999, CMS was
declared unitary and the court order was lifted.
In the relationship between desegregation and
development, development was typically
victorious, leading to the decline of
Education Review /Reseñas Educativas
desegregation alongside prosperous
development. Influential pupil assignment
decisions included the 1992 switch from
district-wide mandatory busing to voluntary
participation in magnets and the 2002 post-
Swann adoption of a race-neutral student
assignment plan that prioritized neighborhood
school attendance.
Based on the analysis provided by
authors throughout this volume, Smith,
Mickelson, and Hawn Nelson identify six
“modest” steps that could be taken within the
existing structure of CMS’s guiding principles
for student assignment: (1) address tracking
and second-generation segregation within
schools; (2) site new schools in locations that
facilitate diversity; (3) draw attendance
boundaries in a manner that facilitates
diversity; (4) use partial magnet programs to
facilitate diversity; (5) reallocate the points
given to each element of the current student
assignment plan so that diversity is more
heavily weighted; and (6) after schools enroll
more diverse groups of students, develop
opportunities for meaningful social and
academic interaction. Although they do not
offer specific suggestions for new student
assignment guidelines, the editors explain that
more ambitious steps would involve substantial
changes to CMS’s 2010 guiding principles and
the current student assignment plan.
The editors recommend that initial
efforts focus on socioeconomic diversity rather
than racial diversity. They provide four reasons
for their stance: legal constraints, mounting
evidence that the income achievement gap is
larger than the racial achievement gap, the
likelihood that socioeconomic diversity might
be more politically acceptable than racial
diversity, and the ability to draw upon the
experiences of other districts that currently
employ socioeconomic-based diversity plans.
The editors acknowledge that while race and
socioeconomic status are often correlated,
creating socioeconomic diversity does not
guarantee that racial diversity will be achieved.
The editors also identify future barriers to
desegregation efforts, which include national
and state hurdles, local demographic
considerations, and a lack of political will.
Despite these barriers, the editors suggest that
there are glimmers of hope, including public
opinion in Charlotte, the local electoral
structure, and brick-and-mortar structures.
CMS’s prominent role in our nation’s
desegregation history makes it a vital topic of
examination. Beyond its historical value, this
book’s informative presentation of CMS’s
transformation makes important contributions
to the studies of school desegregation and
urban school reform. It extends our
understanding of the relationship between
structure and agency, and provides numerous
carefully chosen and enlightening examples
and case studies at various levels of analysis. It
reveals what we can learn from the successes
and failures of a district that has been
attempting to improve educational
achievement within a resegregated structure of
schools. It identifies important steps that could
be taken to increase diversity, steps that are in
accord with CMS’s current student assignment
guidelines and could potentially be studied and
emulated by other similar districts.
One topic that could benefit from
additional attention is how and when the
editors envision CMS undertaking steps that
focus specifically on racial diversity. The
justification for initially addressing
socioeconomic diversity instead of racial
diversity is compelling. Yet, as the original
intent behind desegregation was to remove
barriers among students of different races and
reduce racial isolation, it would be helpful to
hear more about when and in what manner, if
at all, the editors expect racial diversity to
move to the forefront of CMS’s future
desegregation efforts.
The editors conclude the volume with
the following call to action: “For CMS to swim
against the resegregation tide will take courage
and political will. But the effort offers the
promise of improving educational outcomes
and saving money. It could also be an example
to other districts, perhaps even allowing CMS
to once again be a bellwether” (p. 199). This
Review of Yesterday, today, and tomorrow by J. B. Ayscue
volume is particularly timely as the CMS Board
of Education announced in August 2015 that it
would begin to craft new guiding principles for
student assignment and devise a new student
assignment plan that will include a focus on
addressing segregation of low-income students
in schools with high concentrations of poverty.
The Board anticipates implementing the new
student assignment plan in the 2017-2018
school year (Helms, 2015 August). Yesterday,
Today, and Tomorrow leaves the reader
wondering what will happen in the future and
eagerly awaiting the answer to whether or not
CMS will once again become a bellwether of
desegregation and diversity.
Helms, A. D. (2015, August 13). CMS board: It’s time to break up concentrations of school poverty.
The Charlotte Observer. Retrieved from
Silver et al. v. Halifax County Board of Commissioners, 15 CVS 767 (Civil Complaint filed August 24, 2015
in Halifax County Superior Court).
About the Reviewer
Jennifer B. Ayscue
University of California, Los Angeles
Jennifer B. Ayscue is a doctoral candidate at University of California, Los Angeles, in the Urban
Schooling division of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. She is a research
associate at The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Her research interests focus on
desegregation in K-12 schools and the role of policy in shaping students’ access to diverse and
equitable educational opportunities. Before attending UCLA, Ayscue earned an M.A. in Social
Sciences in Education from Stanford University and a B.A. in Elementary Education from University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She taught elementary school in East Palo Alto, California and
Charlotte, North Carolina.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
CMS board: It's time to break up concentrations of school poverty. The Charlotte Observer. Retrieved from http
  • A D Helms
Helms, A. D. (2015, August 13). CMS board: It's time to break up concentrations of school poverty. The Charlotte Observer. Retrieved from news/local/education/article31029576.html
CMS board: It's time to break up concentrations of school poverty. The Charlotte Observer
  • A D Helms
Helms, A. D. (2015, August 13). CMS board: It's time to break up concentrations of school poverty. The Charlotte Observer. Retrieved from news/local/education/article31029576.html
Halifax County Board of Commissioners
  • Silver
Silver et al. v. Halifax County Board of Commissioners, 15 CVS 767 (Civil Complaint filed August 24, 2015 in Halifax County Superior Court).