May 18, 2021 - Education

Everyone’s throwing rocks at public schools

cms school board building charlotte

Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

“One thing you need to know about me,” county commission chairman George Dunlap said in a public meeting Sunday. “If I throw a rock and I don’t hit you, some more are coming.”

The group on the other end of Dunlap’s rocks is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system, which is funded by the board Dunlap chairs, and which serves 140,000 or so young people across our county.

What’s happening: Almost as soon as CMS opened school doors this spring, county leaders started thwacking the system with threats to defund unless it fixes some long-standing issues surrounding inequities.

  • Meanwhile, the legislature is rolling out a handful of bills that will increase statewide oversight over what happens in the classroom.

Yes, it’s been quite a National Teacher Appreciation Month here in North Carolina and Charlotte.

Here are six ways state and local governments, along with community members, are tightening up on public education lately.

(1) Mecklenburg County manager Dena Diorio recommended that the county withhold $56 million from CMS until the system presents a plan to close racial achievement gaps by 2024.

(2) Diorio’s proposal might’ve surprised some, but it’s rooted in support from Black faith leaders, who are demanding CMS deliver better outcomes for Black students.

(3) Dunlap escalated the tension by questioning Superintendent Earnest Winston’s qualifications to have the job he’s held for almost two years. Here’s what Dunlap said, as the Ledger reported:

Earnest is a nice guy. But what do you know about Earnest? Prior to 2004, Earnest was a reporter with the Charlotte Observer. That’s what he did! In 2004, CMS hired him to be an English teacher and teach journalism. And he worked his way around. He drove for (former superintendent) Peter Gorman. He became the chief of staff for the former superintendent. And when nobody else would come to CMS, they made him superintendent.”

(4) Other commissioners then joined in to supports withholding funds, even public-education-supporters such as Leigh Altman, who said:

“I have been deeply affected by the pleas of so many parents who are desperate because their children are not receiving an equitable education. … CMS disparities routinely show achievement gaps of 30-40% between white students and students of color, and the outcomes are worse since the onset of COVID.”

(5) The local drama comes at a time when there’s big movement at the state level that would affect how teachers teach, including a bill that’s rolling through the legislature to ban “critical race theory” in schools.

  • This is a national issue, mostly politically driven, that aims to legislate how classrooms address the issue of race in the U.S., past and present.
  • The George Floyd protests last summer led to calls to teach more anti-racism and to add more diverse viewpoints when discussing historical events. But conservatives say it’s going too far.
  • N.C.’s HB 324, which passed the house last week, says that public schools shouldn’t promote “the belief that the United States is a meritocracy is an inherently racist or sexist belief, or that the United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.”

(6) Beyond that, the legislature is also moving a bill through that would mandate teachers post their lesson plans prominently on the school’s website.

Why it matters: CMS has plenty of issues to address, sure, but public schools have long been the drainage pond for the larger society’s problems and battles.

  • Here in a span of weeks, the local government is telling CMS to solve racial inequities and the state government is passing bills telling teachers not to dwell on racial inequities in the classroom.

What’s different about this wave is how far the county leaders like Dunlap are going to be openly hostile and insulting toward the school system.

  • Coming out of the pandemic, the most difficult year for education in a generation, it’s clear from Diorio’s proposal and Dunlap’s words that the county government and county school system are hardly in a “we’re in this together” mode for solving the inequities.

The latest: CMS responded to Dunlap Monday afternoon with a statement from CMS Board chairperson Elyse Dashew, who said the board was “appalled by the personal attack on Earnest Winston,” adding:

“We owe our children more than political jabs and personal vitriol. The racist systems we are working to change have been in place for more than a century, and students have paid the price for that. We are committed to changing those systems and giving all students the opportunity to succeed. It will happen sooner if the county commission works with us, rather than against us.”

Dunlap snapped back on Twitter later Monday evening:

“What I find appalling is that the school board would defend why they choose (sic) a news paper reporter with no educational experience to run one of the largest school districts in the county. Even more interesting is that no one every said that I lied about his qualifications.\”

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Charlotte.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Charlotte stories


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Charlotte.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more