Commentary

Flurry of House charter school bills would facilitate segregation of North Carolina’s schools

The field of education policy can be quite divided on a number of topics. But in recent years, researchers are increasingly reaching consensus on the harmful impacts of segregated schools. For example, Stanford’s Sean Reardon has found that within-district segregation is the biggest predictor of racial achievement gaps, with one-fifth of the average metropolitan area’s racial achievement gap explained by racial segregation. In Montgomery County, Maryland, students randomly assigned to integrated schools made larger achievement gains than students in less diverse schools. Closer to home, the elimination of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s school busing program increased the black-white achievement gap. These results are consistent with my own forthcoming research on school segregation in North Carolina, which has found a statistically significant negative relationship between student achievement and the level of segregation in a district.

Research is more divided on charter schools’ impact on segregation. However, studies examining North Carolina charter schools have concluded that charter schools are exacerbating segregation. Looking at trends from 1999 to 2012, these researchers found that charter schools in North Carolina are “increasingly serving the interests of relatively able white students in racially imbalanced schools.”

Despite this body of research, the House has advanced a number of charter school bills this week that will facilitate the further segregation of North Carolina’s schools.

HB 514, which gained the approval of the House Education committee on Monday, would allow the Charlotte suburbs of Mint Hill and Matthews to operate their own charter school. Residents of Mint Hill and Matthews would be granted enrollment preference to any charter school operated by the municipalities. Mint Hill is 73 percent white. Matthews is 78 percent white. Meanwhile Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools serves a student population that is only 29 percent white. It is unclear how North Carolina’s public school system would benefit by carving out a separate, majority-white school exclusively for these communities.

Equally disturbing, HB 800, which passed the House Tuesday afternoon, provides charter school enrollment priority to children of “charter partners” – corporations that have contributed at least $50,000 to a charter school. Under the bill, the charter school could reserve up to half of its seats for children whose parents work for a company that has donated land or buildings, or contributed to capital improvements. It is unlikely that the demographics of the children of the corporate donor class mirror that of the children of North Carolina’s public schools.

Rep. John R. Bradford III, HB 800’s sponsor, described his bill as, “a vehicle where a company can create an employee benefit” similar to providing employees with free meals.  Bradford’s position is a radical abandonment of the view of public schools as a public good, creating an engaged and informed citizenry for the benefits of society writ large. Rather than preparing all students for active participation in society, HB 800 would move North Carolina towards a system where corporations could create publicly-funded schools serving commercial interests. Rather than creating equal opportunity for all children to benefit from our public education system, HB 800 would reserve certain opportunities strictly for the children of corporate employees.

Another House bill also bears monitoring, as it too could easily become a vehicle to further school segregation. HB 704 would create a study committee to examine whether to break up large school districts. Of course, North Carolina’s historical consolidation of school districts was driven by the motivation to keep systems integrated. It is unclear why house members might now want to break up large school districts. It is important to note, however, that HB 704 is sponsored by Reps. Brawley and Bradford, who are the primary sponsors on HB 514 and HB 800, respectively.

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