For more than 50 years, the Asheville City Schools district has operated under a federal court order meant to prevent discrimination against Black students. But as the school system deals with shifting demographics and a persistent racial achievement gap, some of its leaders are questioning the value of the decades-old document.
At its Jan. 28 meeting, the Asheville City Board of Education heard from its attorney, Chris Campbell, regarding the desegregation order’s history and legal status. While the board took no action at the time, Chair James Carter indicated that members would consider asking the court to change or end the order in the coming months.
“When I first came on the board [in March 2021], there was some talk about, ‘Well, we can maybe do it,’ but we never went any further with it,” Carter said. “This is something perfect to look at with our strategic planning.”
As previously reported by Xpress (see “Separate but better?” March 17, 2021, avl.mx/b72), the order sets goals for racial balance among individual ACS schools. The most recent language, approved in 1991, says the minority enrollment rate at any individual school should not exceed or fall below the system’s overall minority enrollment rate by more than 15%.
When the order was first adopted in 1970, Campbell noted, ACS’s overall enrollment was roughly 70% white and 30% Black. Current numbers are closer to 65% white and 20% Black, with 15% of students identifying as multiracial or members of other minority groups.
Speaking on Jan. 28, board member Shaunda Sandford called the order’s enrollment target “a racist statement.” She argued that such goals disproportionately impact Black students by restricting their freedom to attend the school of their choice.
“I’m not saying people want to segregate; I think it just should be a choice,” said Sandford, who is Black. “Why is it not OK for [the order] to just say 50-50? Why does it have to be 15% minority and then 85% white? To me, that’s not equitable.”
Recent numbers suggest that minority students are less likely to get their first preference of elementary school than are white students. In the 2020-21 school year, 83% of 529 white students enrolled in their top choice, compared with 78.4% of 134 Black students and 76.9% of 78 Hispanic students. However, data provided by ACS don’t indicate how many students were denied their first-choice school due to the system’s racial targets.
In February 2021, ACS Superintendent Gene Freeman signed a contract with Raleigh-based Forthright Advising that authorized up to $89,400 in consulting services for the system’s equity initiatives, including the exploration of changes to the desegregation order. Records subsequently obtained by Xpress show that Forthright only billed for about $7,600 of work, with the consultant finishing its efforts last March.
Among the documents created by Forthright is a page of “media talking points” about the school system’s look at the desegregation order. In response to the question, “Why are you doing this while we’re still trying to reopen schools?” the document reads, “The achievement gap for students of color is already stark. With the pandemic predicted to only widen existing achievement gaps across the country, now is the time to act.”
Gaps between the test scores of white and Black ACS students, which are among the worst in the state, generally narrowed in the 2020-21 school year — but not because Black students improved. Instead, the performance of white students generally dropped by a greater degree than that of their Black peers. (The N.C. Department of Public Instruction has acknowledged that all students faced “formidable challenges” to learning due to pandemic-related disruptions.)
For example, 38.5% of white students at Asheville High School scored proficient or higher on end-of-course Math I exams in 2019, compared with 10.3% of Black students, equating to a gap of 28.2 percentage points. In 2021, only 26.7% of white students tested proficient, compared with less than 5% of Black students, leading to a smaller gap of 21.7 percentage points.
School board attorney Campbell said any change to the desegregation order would require a return to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, located in Richmond, Va. He said James Ferguson, the plaintiff’s attorney in the lawsuit that led to the current order, was open to reviewing the document and discussing ideas for change.