Six decades after the US Supreme Court swept away the legal framework that permitted segregated public schools, the North Carolina legislature appears to be rebuilding it. On Thursday, the House ratified HB 514, a bill that would make it possible for suburban municipalities to create, operate, and partially fund their own charter schools and give enrollment priority to area children. For the predominantly white communities surrounding Charlotte, this is functionally a license to keep children of color out of “their” public schools.
Since the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the unified school district serving Charlotte and surrounding suburban communities has been in the forefront of the struggle to establish an integrated educational reality. As NPQ noted last year, under court mandate, the district made great progress. In 1984, the editorial board of the Charlotte Observer said, “Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s proudest achievement of the past 20 years is not the city’s impressive new skyline or its strong, growing economy. Its proudest achievement is its fully integrated schools.” Black and white students were the beneficiaries of a system that used buses and magnet schools to bring students of all backgrounds into a common educational experience.
Opponents of the new bill see it clearly as a new path to create racially and economically segregated schools. While the overall school district is very diverse, Black and Latinx families are more concentrated within Charlotte’s city borders. A school district that unifies the city and suburbs ensured that true integration was still on the agenda even as the courts and the federal government eased up oversight. CMS’s school board is diverse and representative of its total area, but the city councils of the suburbs most likely to launch their own schools have few if any members of color. With fully representative governance, the future of education for children living in suburbs, whose population is over 70 percent white and affluent, was still connected to that of Black and Brown children living in the city center. In a more fractured system, that connection could be severed.
North Carolina Policy Watch saw the legislature’s actions, intended or not, as racially motivated. Kris Nordstrom writes, “Whether inspired by racial animus or not, HB 514 will lead to the further segregation of CMS and disproportionately disadvantage students of color and students from low-income families. If we ever hope to achieve a public-school system that is diverse and equitable, we can’t shy away from what HB 514 represents: the enthusiastic embrace of school segregation by our General Assembly.”
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According to the Observer, North Carolina NAACP President T. Anthony Spearman denounced these actions as a “sneaky and underhanded” attempt to create “Jim Crow independent school districts. We understand that too many North Carolina legislators are intent upon destroying public desegregated schools, but we rise to say that this effort will not succeed without an all-out fight.”
As they attempt to defend the integration of their school system, bill opponents also see a threat to the financial base of Charlotte’s public schools. Education Week recently ranked North Carolina 40th in its financial support of public education. According to WRAL, “North Carolina was ranked in the top 20 as recently as a decade ago. But after a recession and deep budget cuts, the rankings slid. Although the economy has come back, whatever education funding the state has restored is not keeping up with other states.” Allowing wealthy cities to fill in where the state has abdicated responsibility leaves less wealthy areas at risk and ensures that their students will not receive an equal education.
For supporters of HB 514, the issue is not race but education. According to Nordstrom, “Backers say the bill simply gives one more option to towns with overcrowded schools and concerns about a large school district that has sometimes neglected suburban needs.” Sponsoring Rep. Bill Brawley told WRAL that the local school system has failed to address parents’ concerns in his district, saying, “I don’t see how it has the sweeping effects that people fear.”
We know that all students benefit from an integrated educational experience. Clint Smith at the New Yorker said, “Researchers have consistently found that students in integrated schools—irrespective of ethnicity, race, or social class—are more likely to make academic gains in mathematics, reading, and often science than they are in segregated ones.” The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district was once well on its way toward creating this reality when the pushback of those who feared change and loss slowed them down. Now, the state has made it legal for the old reality of separate but equal to be reborn. Is this the future they and we want for our children and communities?—Martin Levine