CHAPEL HILL — In the wake of North Carolina's unsuccessful bid for federal "Race to the Top" funds, commentators have decried the legislative cap on the number of charter schools as both a weakness in our grant application and an unfair restraint on educational innovation. Missing from the debate is the reality that North Carolina charter schools are a national leader in racial isolation and hyper-segregated learning.
The 31,192 North Carolina charter students in 2007-2008 were educated in significantly more segregated schools than students in traditional schools. Both white and non-white charter students attend racially identifiable schools at a higher rate than their public school peers.
Statewide, 20 percent of all white charter students attend schools that are 90 to 100 percent white; 46 percent of all African-American charter school students attend schools that are 90-100 percent African-American.
The legislature anticipated the possibility of segregation in the state's charter schools. Our charter school law prohibits discrimination in admission of students and specifically provides that "Within one year after the charter school begins operation, the population of the school shall reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the general population residing within the local school administrative unit in which the school is located."
The State Board of Education's "Policy on Charter Schools Racial and Ethnic Balance," states "A charter school must have a student population that reflects the racial/ethnic composition of the school system in which it is located. The school must have percentages that fall within the range exhibited by the regular, non-magnet, non-special schools in the district."
These policies require that the State Board of Education investigate racial disparities in charter schools and take measures to remedy any discrepancies. However, there is no evidence of the Charter School Advisory Committee ever finding a school outside the acceptable diversity range or investigating the variance.
The Office of Charter School's website includes a link to "Charter Action Plans" that document how charter schools have addressed noncompliance issues in the past. None of these focuses on racial segregation, and no school has ever had its charter revoked for failing to comply with these integration policies.
Despite the language and intent of these diversity policies, more than 20 percent of North Carolina's charter schools have racial compositions that differ from those of their Local Education Agencies (LEAs) by 50 percent or more. In the Charlotte, Durham and Guilford LEAs, six charter schools have white student populations between 82 and 90 percent, while the LEAs have between 24 and 42 percent white students. In Charlotte, Forsyth, Gaston, Guilford, Iredell-Statesville, Lenoir, New Hanover, Wake and Wayne counties, 13 charter schools have black student populations between 83 and 100 percent, while the LEAs have between 15 and 49 percent black students.
In Wake County - where the issue of maintaining diversity in the public schools has captured national attention - segregation in charter schools is particularly alarming. In 2007-2008, 20 percent of charter students were in schools with a 90 to 100 percent minority student population; a mere 1 percent of public school students were in intensely segregated minority schools. As the system abandons its commitment to diversity and public schools face the potential for resegregation, are North Carolina's racially isolated charter schools a vision of the future for our traditional public schools as well?
School districts across the state are struggling with diversity and resegregation in traditional schools. As policymakers focus on charter schools and debate raising the cap, it is imperative that they strengthen and enforce policies to combat racial isolation in charter schools. Failure to act decisively will not only exacerbate segregation in publicly funded schools, but will allow it to accelerate with the state's approval.
Mark Dorosin is the senior managing attorney and Benita N. Jones is the education fellow at the Center for Civil Rights at the UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Law.