RALEIGH — A tug-of-war between North Carolina’s second-largest school system and small towns interested in operating their own charter schools could create a model for critics of other urban districts to decentralize public education without the trouble of breaking districts up.
Four prosperous communities fed up with overcrowding in traditional schools run by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system and their students getting bused elsewhere are seeking power from the General Assembly to create their own schools and give enrollment preference to residents.
Statewide there are more than 170 charter schools, which run independently from school systems but receive taxpayer funds. But none are run by a municipality.
“It really just gives parents a choice,” said Paul Bailey, the mayor of Matthews, one of the four towns, whose population has grown by over 15 percent this decade. “It gives them another option of how their kids can be educated.”
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board and allies are fighting proposed legislation. They say it would contribute to more segregated classrooms and more student reassignments, and hit municipal residents with tax increases to operate the charter school, with no guarantees their children could attend.
“We’ve tried to understand the concerns of these communities and we’ve made multiple attempts to provide reasonable solutions to their concerns,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg board chair Mary McCray said at a Legislative Building news conference this past week. McCray warned the bill, if approved, could set the stage for municipalities elsewhere to request the same authority, which she called a “seismic change” in North Carolina education policy.
Legislation approved by the House last year would give the charter school option to Matthews and Mint Hill. Town councils of Huntersville and Cornelius voted this month to be added to the measure, which the bill sponsor says is poised for Senate debate in the coming days.
“The time for stopping the bill is over,” said the sponsor, GOP Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews. He said the legislation would be unnecessary if the Charlotte-Mecklenburg board, which serves 147,000 students, had agreed to build more schools within the town limits.
A committee led by Brawley studied earlier this year possible gains and liabilities from breaking up large districts. The committee found that splitting up districts is possible but complicated.
Brawley called the charter school measure “kind of an experiment.” Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Mecklenburg County Democrat opposing the bill, said it “is giving a roadmap to small towns looking to break away from their local school districts on how it might be done.”
This measure only involves one county, so the bill isn’t subject to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto stamp if approved. He said last week he’s concerned about the idea.
The issue is draped in issues of race and income for the Charlotte area. A landmark 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld Charlotte-Mecklenburg busing students to address racial disparities in schools. A mandatory busing order was lifted in the 1990s.
There are now more than 25 charter schools in Mecklenburg County. The percentages of white residents in the four communities seeking charter school authority are above the percentage in Mecklenburg County overall.
But Bailey, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg board member, says Matthews is “just a cross-section of America” with “people at all economic levels.” Brawley said wealthy residents already send their children to private schools, middle-class families are moving to Union County for its schools, and those who are poor currently have “no choice” on schools.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg board said in a statement that schools that draw students largely from racially imbalanced communities will be “inherently segregated, too.”
Tony Lowe of Huntersville, who addressed his town’s board this month before it voted to ask to be added to the legislation, said a town-sponsored charter school would send the message “we are unfriendly to poor and marginalized people.”