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Doing Better: Tar Heel educator’s new book warns of risks to NC public schools

John Batchelor’s credentials as an educator speak for themselves – and when he speaks about the state of public schools in North Carolina, we would be to listen.

The Tar Heel native spent 30 years as a teacher and administrator, working in classrooms across the state during the early years of desegregation and leading major turnarounds as superintendent of two high-poverty systems in eastern North Carolina. He later teamed with the Center for Data Driven Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University as a school improvement and leadership consultant nationally.

Batchelor has since turned to writing about his home state, and he has two big stories to tell.

The first is captured in his important and inspiring new book “Race and Education in North Carolina: From Segregation to Desegregation,” released in December by LSU Press. The book explores the transformation of North Carolina’s public education system in the years following 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, from a thoroughly segregated enterprise into the most desegregated state system of education in America. This didn’t happen without major resistance, as we noted in a column last year.

But the process ultimately delivered far greater socio-economic balance in schools with high concentrations of race and poverty. Those changes drove levels of academic growth, particularly for lower-income and minority families, that were unprecedented for our state and linger to this day. Just four years ago, for example, our state’s four-year high school graduation rate reached an all-time high of 80 percent, while the dropout rate hit an all-time low of 3 percent.

Forces driving success

Those successes are central to Batchelor’s second, and far less uplifting, story – which explains how much of the progress made in equalizing educational opportunity in North Carolina is coming undone. The tale of how we went from segregation to desegregation to re-segregation is the focus of another book that Batchelor’s writing now. It is, he says, “depressing as hell.”

The situation wasn’t always this way. In the decade after the Brown v. Board ruling, a coalition of progressive business, civic, faith and government leaders methodically fought off attempts to undermine desegregation. Three forces, Batchelor says, fueled their success. First, these leaders shared a moral vision, not widely accepted at the time, that all children should receive a quality education regardless of race or income level. Second, they were pragmatists who recognized that North Carolina’s economy would never fulfill its potential if the minority population didn’t have fair access to education. Also, the civil rights movement could bring the economy to a virtual standstill if acceptable progress did not occur. The third factor, legal action spearheaded by the federal government, accelerated the pace of desegregation.

Because most neighborhoods were and still are racially and socio-economically segregated, busing was needed to accomplish true desegregation. By the late 1970s, that system was in place. There followed a wave of major school reforms, supported by both Republicans and Democrats, that invested in early childhood education, reduced classroom sizes, prioritized the development and advancement of teachers and more accurately measured student’s academic growth year over year. The reforms made quality education more accessible than ever and elevated student achievement across the board.

Then it all began to unravel.

Reforms being dismantled

As Batchelor tells it, the trouble started with federal court rulings in the 1990s, particularly involving judges appointed during the Reagan years, that prioritized local control of schools over federally-mandated desegregation. School boards here and across the country used their new freedom to end busing in favor of neighborhood schools, which leads to de facto segregation in many communities. Meanwhile, the public charter school movement, of which North Carolina has been in the vanguard, hasn’t helped.

A Duke University study released last year found that about 30 percent of students in North Carolina attend regular schools that are highly segregated, defined as those with enrollments that are more than 80 percent white or less than 20 percent white. But two-thirds of charter school students attend schools that are highly segregated and about two-thirds of charter school students are white, contributing to the growing racial and socio-economic imbalances in our schools.

As a result, Batchelor says, too many schools are once again becoming isolated pockets of race and poverty. Strong evidence shows those conditions will significantly diminish the performance of schools. While our education system still benefits from investments in the ‘80s and ‘90s, many of those reforms are being dismantled or scaled back. It will take some time to measure the impact. But when it comes to public education, Batchelor warns, our state has “embarked on a period of great risk.”

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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