OurFuture.org: New Charter School Plan Should Alarm the Nation

Charter schools already have a segregation problem. But a new law about to pass in North Carolina would direct even more taxpayer money into funding charter schools that by design, if not by intent, lead to more racial segregation of school children.

This is not only an alarming development in the Old South, where schools made substantial progress on integration since the landmark Brown v. Board Supreme Court case made racially separate schools illegal in 1954.

It’s also a wakeup call to the nation on how a campaign to re-segregate public schools is being carried out in the name of “school choice” and “local control.”

A ‘Design for Segregation’

The bill, House Bill 514, would allow suburban communities outside Charlotte to create and fund their own charter schools.

This is “a design for racial and economic segregation,” writes former NC Teacher of the Year James Ford. “The result of this will ultimately amount to systemic racism.”

The origin of the bill goes back at least two years when the mayor and town board of Matthews, NC, began devising ways to sever ties with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, which merges their schools with those in the city and surrounding county.

At public meetings, Matthews town officials and the State Representative for the community talked openly of creating a task force to explore a separate suburban school district and separating with CMS over issues with “trust,” student assignments, and “bussing.”

“It’s within the authority of the [state] General Assembly to do it,” one official is quoted, citing a previous attempt in 2005 that “went nowhere.”

Somewhere between then and now, the plan for separating from CMS evolved into the idea for Matthews and nearby Mint Hill to create their own charter schools. Currently in North Carolina, charter schools – privately operated schools given taxpayer funds, with fewer operational restrictions than public schools – are authorized, approved, and funded by the state.

By the time HB 514 emerged, Matthews Mayor Paul Bailey had dropped his idea of separating from the district altogether, and instead argued community-based charters would address a need for more “seats” in his community, where there are “excellent schools,” but “too few” of them.

The bill, he said, is about “local control” and giving parents more “options.”

Yet while the language for rationalizing this bill may have evolved into something more palatable, Ford is correct about its “design.” Based on both the historical context of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and the nature of the current unregulated charter school industry, this new bill opens a new pathway to increased school segregation that other states may decide to follow.

A Return to Segregation

Nearly all school districts in the Tar Heel state are “merged districts,” in which inner-city schools share the same district with schools in outlying suburban and rural areas, a configuration that dates back to Reconstruction.

After the Brown ruling, as well as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which held busing was an appropriate way to integrate schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg became, by the 1980s, one of the most racially integrated school districts in America. Such efforts have led to long-term benefits for Black American,s including greater income, better health outcomes, and lower incarceration rates.

Since then, rulings by more conservative courts overturning previous legal precedent and a state General Assembly dominated by Republicans have done much to resegregate CMS and other NC school districts. House Bill 514 would surely add to the racial imbalances in schools.

Students who live in Matthews, which is 82 percent white, now have opportunities, either by assignment or by choice, to attend schools in nearby neighborhoods where student populations are anywhere between one third to over one-half Black or Hispanic. The student population of CMS overall is just 28 percent white.

Were Matthews students to attend a charter school in their own neighborhood, the likelihood of that school being mostly white (85 – 90 percent) would increase significantly.

The Segregating Impact of Charters

“Charter schools are among the nation’s most segregated [schools],” a recent analysis by the Associated Press found. AP’s findings align with previous studies that have found that charter schools and other forms of school choice are exacerbating existing patterns of segregation.

In North Carolina, there’s little doubt parents use charters to segregate.

North Carolina charter schools are significantly more segregated, with students who are wealthier and whiter than those at public schools in the state. This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that charter schools don’t have to provide transportation or school meals, which significantly reduces their appeal to low-income parents. Also, laws governing charter schools in the state dropped the previous requirement for the schools to serve a diverse student population.

In North Carolina, “at traditional public schools,” a recent study found, “only about 30 percent of students attend schools that are ‘highly segregated’ (schools that are more than 80 percent or less than 20 percent white). At charter schools, more than two-thirds attend schools that are highly segregated.”

The impact charters have on segregating students by race and income is especially acute in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. According to a recent study, the growth of charter schools in the district led to more proficient white and Asian students leaving the public schools, while affluent parents used the threat of escape to charters as a way to coerce local officials to redraw student assignment boundaries to reduce racial integration and ensure white parents could send their children to schools in their neighborhoods.

Enacting HB 514 provides white parents with just another mechanism to use charters for what they have become a tool for: separating the races.

A Dangerous New Funding Provision

Backers of HB 514 had conceived a way to use charter schools to legalize racially segregating students, but they still needed a way to fund new community-based charters in the suburbs.

Ironically, CMS alerted NC lawmakers to this problem. A report, funded by the districtwarned that in North Carolina “it is against the law for towns to go into debt to pay for schools, so if a town wants to purchase land for a charter school, the town would have to pay in full up front. The report also found that the towns could not use any state funds to build a charter school and can’t raise property taxes for a school without a public referendum.”

During meetings closed to the public and hidden from Democratic state lawmakers, Republican legislators found a way around the funding problem that allows cities across the state, not just Matthews and Mint Hill, to use locally-raised tax money for public schools, including charter schools.

This funding provision “opens the door for districts and charter schools to ask municipal governments to pony up for anything from school resource officers to custodians to teacher pay supplements,” a former state legislator is quoted in an NC news outlet.

So while HB 514 may be confined to just the suburbs of Charlotte, it provides an opening for charters throughout the state to demand funds from local districts and redirect more taxpayer money from public schools to privately controlled “options” that can further segregate schools.

A Dangerous New Pathway to More Inequality

North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper has expressed “concerns” about HB 514, but should he decide to veto the budget bill, which the new law is attached to as an amendment, his veto would likely be overridden, as Republicans currently command supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Already, other suburban communities around Charlotte have asked for the same sort of option Matthews and Mint Hill want to have to create their own segregated school system via community owned and operated charter schools.

Proponents of school choice and charter schools often justify increased racial segregation their preferred schools cause  by arguing that parent choice is what matters most.

But the legacy of the Brown ruling is that separate schools will never be equal. What North Carolina is doing defies that truth and opens a dangerous new pathway for other states to create more education inequality.

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America's Future and owner of a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, NC, serving numerous nonprofits and progressive organizations and causes including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, ASCD, National Geographic Society, PBS, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation. He has written...