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The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) is the first school district in North Carolina to win the prestigious Board Prize for Urban Education. In this week’s CommenTerry, I consider the award in the context of the contentious debate over student assignment policies and student performance in Mecklenburg and Wake counties.

Bulletin Board

  • The John W. Pope Civitas Institute will hold its monthly poll luncheon on Thursday, September 29 at 11:45 a.m. at the Clarion Hotel in downtown Raleigh. The guest speaker will be Tom Fetzer, former Raleigh mayor, former North Carolina Republican Party chairman, and owner of Fetzer Strategic Partners. To register, call 919-834-2099 or go to
  • The John Locke Foundation is sponsoring a Citizen’s Constitutional Workshop on Saturday, October 22 from 9:30 am to 3:00 pm at Village Hall in Pinehurst, NC. Historian Dr. Troy Kickler and political science expert Dr. Michael Sanera will discuss "What would the Federalists and Anti-federalists say about the current political and economic crises?" The cost is $8.00 per participant, lunch included. Pre-registration is strongly suggested. For more information or to sign up for the event, visit the Events section of the John Locke Foundation website.
  • The North Carolina History Project would like educators and homeschool parents to submit lesson plans suitable for middle and high school courses in North Carolina history. Please provide links to NC History Project encyclopedia articles and other primary and secondary source material, if possible. Go to the NC History Project website for further information.
  • Hey you. Visit JLF’s research newsletter archive.


Ten years ago, North Carolina’s largest school district, Wake County Schools, and the state’s second largest school district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), chose radically different ways of assigning students.

Like nearly every school district in the nation, Charlotte-Mecklenburg assigned students based on the proximity of the school to their home. Wake County was one of about 60 school districts nationwide that used a controversial socioeconomic-based busing scheme. School district leaders implemented a plan to assign low-income students to schools in middle-class neighborhoods and vice-versa. Wake County’s goal, according to proponents of the policy, was to achieve "healthy" and "diverse" schools that had no more than 40 percent of students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch.

Despite differences in the makeup of student populations in the two districts, their dissimilar approaches to student assignment invited many elected officials and policy experts to compare student performance in Wake and Mecklenburg counties. While a handful of observers made an earnest effort to learn from the comparison, many others simply dismissed CMS. In 2009, Busmaster General Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation charged that "Charlotte is trying to spend its way into making ‘separate but equal schools’ work." UCLA professor and busing proponent Gary Orfield told the New York Times in 2010, "My feeling is that it’s very important for people in Wake to drive over to Charlotte and see what’s happened."

A year later, we know what has happened. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools received the 2011 Broad Prize for Urban Education.

Wake County Schools had too few low-income students to be eligible for the prestigious award. Of course, Wake’s eligibility would not have changed the result. When the two districts go head-to-head, Charlotte-Mecklenburg outperforms Wake County on a number of measures of student achievement. What makes this comparison even more impressive is the fact that Charlotte-Mecklenburg has over 28,600 more low-income (free lunch) students than Wake County.

During the 2010-11 school year, nearly 52 percent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s disadvantaged elementary and middle school students scored at or above grade level on state reading and math tests. While that percentage is nothing to celebrate, just over 49 percent of disadvantaged Wake County students passed North Carolina’s reading and math tests. On state end-of-course tests, CMS’s disadvantaged high school students had an average pass rate of 72.6 percent. Their peers in Wake County averaged 68.4 percent on the same tests. Finally, CMS graduated 64.7 percent of the district’s economically disadvantaged seniors, compared to 63.0 percent in Wake County.

Of course, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools did not win the Broad Prize by outperforming Wake County. It was much more difficult than that. CMS had to best 74 peer urban districts, including acclaimed and affluent districts like Montgomery (MD) County Public Schools and Boston (MA) Public Schools.

Broad Foundation’s 21-person review board noted that CMS had done an outstanding job of closing achievement gaps. In addition to academic performance, the panel assessed school district practices in each of the districts eligible for the Broad Prize. These distinguished experts were impressed with the district’s successful implementation of their neighborhood schools assignment policy. They commented that the district "creatively allocates resources, whether money or effective personnel, where they are needed most." Reviewers continued,

Charlotte’s school system educates poor and affluent children alike. For a long time, court-ordered racial desegregation policies ensured that CMS schools all had a mix of students. Those orders were removed after a 1997 lawsuit, and the district introduced a new school assignment and choice system in 2002. As a result, neighborhood-based enrollment became the norm–meaning that for the most part, affluent children attended school with other affluent children, and likewise for children from high poverty backgrounds–and the resource needs of different schools came to vary profoundly.

CMS responded by implementing a weighted funding formula, which ensures that high-poverty schools receive extra resources. Needier schools get more teachers (and thus smaller classes), more instructional coaches and other resources. The highest-need schools also receive extra professional development, increased monitoring and hiring bonuses for teachers.

The review panel recognized that CMS’s neighborhood school assignment policy, together with the judicious and strategic use of resources, contributed to the district’s impressive academic results. Apparently, the Wake County Board of Education and the district’s new, reform-minded superintendent Tony Tata has considered a similar approach.

So, I encourage people in Wake County and elsewhere to listen to Gary Orfield. Drive to Charlotte and "see what’s happened." Better yet, let the Broad Foundation tell you what’s happened. Charlotte-Mecklenburg has become "a model for innovation in urban education." Wake County is playing catch-up.

Random Thought

According to actor Gary Busey, "Drinking your own blood is the paradigm of recycling." What does that mean for the vampire community?

Facts and Stats

What factors did the Broad Foundation consider when they awarded the 2011 Broad Prize for Urban Education to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools? The following passages from the Broad press release provide some details:

Narrowed ethnic achievement gaps. In recent years, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has narrowed achievement gaps between African-American and white students in reading and math at all school levels (elementary, middle and high school). For example, from 2007 to 2010, achievement gaps between African-American and white students decreased by 11 percentage points in high school reading. In addition, Charlotte-Mecklenburg narrowed achievement gaps between Hispanic and white students in math at all school levels, and in middle and high school reading.

Narrowed ethnic achievement gaps faster. In recent years, the pace at which Charlotte- Mecklenburg narrowed achievement gaps between African-American and white students was among the fastest third of North Carolina districts in elementary and high school reading and math. In addition, the pace at which Charlotte-Mecklenburg narrowed achievement gaps between Hispanic and white students was among the fastest third of North Carolina districts in math at all school levels and in middle and high school reading.

Boosted percentage of low-income students performing at high levels. In recent years, Charlotte-Mecklenburg increased the percentage of low-income students who performed at the highest achievement level (Level IV) in middle and high school reading and math faster than other North Carolina districts. For example, between 2007 and 2010, the percentage of low-income students performing at the highest achievement level increased an average of 6 percentage points per year in high school math compared with an average of 2 percentage points per year for other North Carolina districts.

Demonstrated strong college readiness levels. In 2010, 62 percent of Charlotte- Mecklenburg’s African-American seniors participated in the SAT exam. This marked the highest SAT participation rate for African-American seniors among all 75 large urban school districts eligible for The Broad Prize.


I would like to invite all readers to submit announcements, as well as their personal insights, anecdotes, concerns, and observations about the state of education in North Carolina. I will publish selected submissions in future editions of the newsletter. Anonymity will be honored. For additional information or to send a submission, email Terry at [email protected].

Education Acronym of the Week

CMS — Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Quote of the Week

"My feeling is that it’s very important for people in Wake to drive over to Charlotte and see what’s happened."
— Professor Gary Orfield, quoted in Robbie Brown, "District May End N.C. Economic Diversity Program," New York Times, February 27, 2010.

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