Regrettably, the legislature recently approved a law enabling four towns in Mecklenburg County to run charter schools and give town residents preferences for seats. Regrettably, Republicans brushed aside concerns that the schools would be overwhelmingly white. Regrettably, it's only a matter of time before this concept is expanded statewide.
Some of the lawmakers were defensive about these concerns and took them personally. During debate, Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, asked Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, if Bishop or any of the bill's supporters were racist. Bishop said no.
Cook explained that he'd heard too much "implication that we're all a bunch of racists," reported Alex Granados of EdNC, an independent nonprofit that reports on schools.
Opponents of the bill didn't say Cook or Bishop were racist. Opponents did raise valid questions about the racial composition of charter schools run by suburban, affluent towns. Of the four towns, three of them have an all-white elected board and one town has one elected African-American.
Bishop said: "I don't think the specter that's been raised by some people is reasonable." But, of course, it is a reasonable concern. Setting aside the demographics of the four towns, one needs only to look at the enrollment of current charter schools to see most charters are not as racially diverse as the local school system.
As The News & Observer reported last fall, charter schools in North Carolina are more segregated than traditional public schools and have more affluent students. The pro-charter American Enterprise Institute found that charter schools in North Carolina serve dramatically fewer poor students than the five traditional public schools that are their closest neighbors. North Carolina stands out in that measure compared to most other states, said the author of the report.
N&O reporters Lynn Bonner, Jane Stancill and David Raynor found that wealthier students are enrolling in charters at a greater pace than low-income students. Federal data shows that 33 percent of students enrolled in charters in the 2016-'17 school year were low-income, compared to 53 percent in traditional schools.
There's a simple step Republicans can take to show they're committed to ensuring charter schools are diverse. They could reinstate the provision that required the population of charters to reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the school district.
The 1996 state law that allowed charters included that provision, which had bipartisan support. That law intended to create opportunity for all students. But in 2013, Republicans repealed that provision. So it is fair to question Republicans about their commitment to diversity in charters.
This issue isn't just about how diverse charters are going to be. What's also at issues is how integrated public schools are going to be as the state adds more charters. If the four Mecklenburg towns operate charters that are overwhelmingly white, that would lead to the further resegregation of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools by drawing white students out of traditional schools and into the charters.
“Charters have opened the doors to us resegregating our schools,” Tom Benton, former chairman of the Wake County school board, told The N&O last year.
Some states have used charters to provide disadvantaged students with more opportunities. For the most part, North Carolina has done the opposite.
We're not questioning whether legislative Republicans are good people or are fair-minded in their personal lives. We are saying the record shows they're not committed to ensuring that charter schools — public schools funded by taxpayers — are appropriately diverse. If Republicans want to pass a bill requiring charters to reflect the demographics of the local school system, we'd be glad to be proven wrong.