Americans would like to believe that the long arc of history bends towards justice, but currently in the school system of Charlotte, North Carolina, history seems to look more like a pendulum.
In the aftermath of Brown v. Board (1954), voters in North Carolina pushed through the Pearsall Plan, which allowed districts to shut down desegregated schools and offer state-funded vouchers to allow white students to attend private, still-segregated institutions. Fifteen years later, a U.S. District Court struck down that plan in Godwin v. Johnson County Board of Education. A couple of years later, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the U.S. Supreme Court found that busing was a constitutionally appropriate remedy for school segregation, leading to decades of intentional school integration efforts that transformed the Charlotte school district into one of the most integrated in the nation. Researchers found that the plan improved academic achievement considerably.
Then, after almost thirty years of successful integration, a federal judge ruled that Swann was no longer relevant after a white parent sued the city when his daughter did not gain admission to a local magnet school. Charlotte quickly resegregated, eventually becoming the most segregated district in the state and earning the ugly distinction of ranking dead last among the fifty largest U.S. cities for economic mobility for poor children.
In November 2016, Charlotte–Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) sought to reinstate diversity as a priority and announced a modest plan to break up large concentrations of poverty. Then, in the most recent step backward, in June 2018, the legislature passed House Bill 514—a law that allows four affluent, majority-white suburbs to effectively secede from the county–city CMS school system.
…when privileged towns break away from their less privileged districts, they not only abdicate the community’s responsibility to serve all of its members, but also form in-groups and out-groups based upon metrics influenced by race and class…
HB 514 authorizes the wealthy suburbs of Cornelius (which is 85 percent white), Huntersville (77 percent white), Matthews (78 percent white), and Mint Hill (73 percent white) to not only create and operate their own charter schools, but then to preference admission to those schools to the children living within that municipality. A closely related budget provision then permits these suburbs to use their own property wealth to resource those same racially isolated schools above and beyond what schools in the 29 percent white, less affluent CMS system could receive. Meanwhile, these towns would continue to receive funding from CMS. Three of the four town boards that voted to be included in this legislation were all white, and did so unanimously. In the fourth, Cornelius, the one black board member cast the sole vote against the town’s inclusion in the bill.
State and local lawmakers pushed through this bill despite evidence that, particularly in the state of North Carolina, charter schools are often known vehicles of white flight. Professor Helen Ladd of Duke University uncovered a trend of deepening segregation in the state since charters first opened in 1997 and contends that North Carolina charters serve as one way for white parents to secede from the more diverse public school system. Unlike the national conversation that imagines charters as catering to low-income children of color, Ladd’s research found that, by 2014, more than a fifth of charter schools in the state were more than 90 percent white, compared to a tenth in 1998. While the traditional North Carolina public school population has become less white over time (from 64.1 percent white in 2000 to 53 percent in 2015), the charter school student population has moved in the opposite direction, from 58.5 percent white to 62.2 percent. The charter schools that HB 514 permits will almost certainly continue this trend.
Of course, writers and supporters of the new law object to this characterization. Legislation author and state representative Bill Brawley insists that this allowance has nothing to do with race, but rather just offers more school options to towns with overcrowded schools. During debate on the bill, Senator Bill Cook expressed offense at “the implication that we’re all a bunch of racists.” Despite their protestations, three facts remain. First, this move emerges against a compelling backdrop of Charlotte’s long struggle to maintain stable integration and its recently announced intentions to address those wrongs. Second, the evidence clearly demonstrates that, notwithstanding the intent, the effect of such a move would be to encourage academic opportunity-hoarding within wealthy, white suburbs. And third, as former North Carolina Teacher of the Year James Ford explains, racism is about the systems, not necessarily the personalities, that marginalize communities of color. The effects of this new law will be systemic racism, so “supporters of HB 514 do so either because, or in spite of, this fact.”
These efforts represent the most insidious form of school segregation: when privileged towns break away from their less privileged districts, they not only abdicate the community’s responsibility to serve all of its members, but also form in-groups and out-groups based upon metrics influenced by race and class. North Carolina’s pseudo-secession bill both reflects existing trends and might have the power to set new ones. According to EdBuild, at least thirty-six school districts have broken away from bigger ones since 2000, and in almost all of those cases, the exiting communities had higher property values and were less diverse. In Gardendale, Alabama, a school district that attempted to secede from the majority black Jefferson County, one pro-secession organizer made her motivations clear. “A look around at our community sporting events, our churches are great snapshots of our community. A look into our schools, you’ll see something different,” she laments. This winter, the North Carolina legislature established its own thirteen-member study committee to explore what school district secession could look like in their state. Residents in Matthews have long called for breaking away from CMS, and last year EdBuild identified them as the one ongoing secession effort in the state. Bill Brawley, who represents Matthews and authored HB 514, was also one of the three lead co-sponsors of the bill establishing this exploratory committee.
Moreover, recent reporting from Emmanuel Felton suggests that, nationally, the problem of white-flight charters is more prevalent than many knew. Though a small number charter schools actively seek to promote integration and inclusion through their design—as my colleague Halley Potter and I highlighted in a recent report—about as many serve a white student population that is at least 20 percentage points higher than at any of the surrounding traditional public schools. The innovation of HB 514—that it uses these prospective white-flight charters as a legal safeguard in case a traditional secession movement fails—is also its injustice.
…these four white suburbs chose a new definition of “local” that shoves the children of families in the less affluent, browner surrounding areas not just further into the margins, but off of their new map.
HB 514 reveals a painful yet powerful truth: that we too often narrow our definitions of community and restrict who we view as its members based on racial, linguistic, and socioeconomic identities. And that restrictive construction of community is enforced by those with the power to exclude, with the influence to write and pass “race neutral” legislation that effectively builds a wall between races. Using the language of “local control,” these four white suburbs chose a new definition of “local” that shoves the children of families in the less affluent, browner surrounding areas not just further into the margins, but off of their new map.
Through HB 514, the North Carolina legislature seems to have introduced the next chapter in Charlotte’s long struggle to maintain stable integration, vacillating between just and unjust systems of student assignment. For the pendulum of history to look more like an arc, the charter community must reckon with the ways that its schools have been manipulated to sanction and facilitate segregation, and condemn schools that fit that description. But most importantly, the country must reckon with why and how we build walls around our neighbors. HB 514 is not just a law that seeks more options and opportunities in communities where both are plentiful; it is a law that limits those same tools of upward mobility for those who have the furthest to climb. It reveals the entitlement of the boards that sanctioned it, and exposes their inability to imagine a community beyond their comfort-zones. Hopefully, those lessons of exclusion and exclusivity will not be taught to the children in what might become their new, racially isolated charter schools.
Cover Photo: WASHINGTON – MAY 15: Jordan Maclin, 6 of Maryland, sits in a Brown vs Board of Ed era classroom at the “Separate But Not Equal” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)