The Charleston Forum was established a year after the Emanuel AME Church shooting | City Paper file photo

Overwhelming support exists for dramatic reforms to improve quality of life in Charleston’s tri-county area, according to results from a survey published by The Charleston Forum. But intense disparities between local Black and white residents show diverging outlooks on the prospect for improved race relations in the community.

The Charleston Forum, a nonprofit advocacy group created a year after the 2015 murders at Emanuel AME Church by an avowed white supremacist, uses an annual survey to capture snapshots of public opinion over time about local issues across a number of areas, from criminal justice to education. A series of panel discussions to examine the findings will convene in the coming months.

This year’s 700-person survey was conducted April 16-May 16 by the Vermont-based Center for Research and Public Policy, a market research firm.

Overall, 88.4% of Charleston-area residents continue to report a high quality of life generally, nearly matching the survey’s 2020 figure, 89.8%.

Charleston Forum kicks off its 2021 discussions Tuesday with the first of a two-part panel on education with superintendents and leaders from three tri-county school districts. Survey respondents showed almost universal support for proposals to connect parents and caregivers to school services and install parent advocates at “challenged” schools.

A question about proposals — citing two Meeting Street Schools-run elementary schools — for establishing “innovative public schools” in high-poverty areas earned support from 76.4% of respondents. Under a proposal passed by the legislature this year, designated “schools of innovation” would be exempt from certain rules and regulations. The measure, a version of which has been debated in Charleston for years and was supported by conservative advocacy groups at the state level, has been criticized as a way to open public schools to private operators. In a separate question, more than 70% of respondents also indicated support for allowing parents to send students to “schools of choice.”

On hot-button issues surrounding policing and criminal justice, found that at least 84% of respondents support education and training for officers on fair treatment, consequences for officers who fail to use body-worn cameras and de-escalation training. Nearly 80% of participants supported beefing up Charleston County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which identifies systemic disparities in local law enforcement. Wide support was also found for bail reform and dedicated programs to increase trust and confidence among residents of nonwhite communities.

Black and white residents of the Charleston area hold dramatically different views on how local race relations have changed over the past decade, the survey found.

While 61.8% of residents overall say race relations have improved or stayed the same, but good, 52.5% of Black residents say race relations have declined or stayed the same, but poor. That disparity includes a major drop-off among Black respondents compared to last year, when 56.7% said relations had improved or stayed the same, but good. Overall, 73.1% of Black respondents said relations had stayed the same over the past decade, for better or worse.

The Charleston Forum also surveyed residents about economic development and jobs, as well as symbols of public history. Future discussions hosted by the Forum will center on those topics, as well as others examined by the group’s 2021 survey.

Tuesday’s education panel is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. and is open to the public. The second part of the two-installment panel is scheduled for Friday at 11:30 a.m.

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