NC should close charter schools that aren't diverse, new report says

North Carolina's traditional public schools are becoming more segregated and charter schools are partly to blame, according to a new report from the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center.

The Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg school systems have both become more segregated over the past decade, which is part of a statewide trend, according to the report released Friday by Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the N.C. Justice Center's Education and Law Project.

Nordstrom says state and local leaders can reverse school segregation by closing charter schools that don't meet integration goals. Other suggestions include merging some city and county school systems and requiring charter schools to provide transportation.

"North Carolina could create a much fairer, inclusive and integrated system of schools by spending just slightly more on student transportation and demonstrating a modicum of political will," Nordstrom writes in the report. "In the end, failure to integrate schools is the much more expensive proposition — financially and morally."

But Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the conservative John Locke Foundation, said the changes proposed by Nordstrom would give the state enormous power in deciding where children go to school.

Stoops said parents "don’t want Raleigh intimately involved in the assignment of their children’s school based on some demographic factors that might not fit the needs of the students or the needs of the parents.”

Nordstrom looked at North Carolina school demographic data over the past decade and found a 61 percent increase in the number of racially isolated and economically isolated schools, meaning at least 75 percent of their students were persons or color and from low-income families.

The 476 schools now account for 19 percent of the state's traditional public schools. The increase in the number of racially isolated and economically isolated schools exceeded the growth in the numbers of low-income and minority students in the state.

Over the past decade, the report found that school districts have become more unequal in the distribution of low-income students.

In terms of the state's 115 districts, Nordstrom said Charlotte-Mecklenburg has become North Carolina's most racially segregated district while also being one of the most economically segregated districts. Nordstrom also found that the Wake County school system has become more racially and economically segregated.

In recent years, both CMS and Wake have backed off from their efforts to make school enrollments more diverse.

Stoops says Wake's decision to not go back to its busing policy since Democrats regained control of the school board in 2011 suggests that school leaders realize the effort would be too much of a liability.

As traditional public schools become less integrated, the report says charter schools "exacerbate racial segregation." Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some requirements traditional public schools must follow.

In 72 percent of the counties where there's at least one charter school, the report said that charter schools increase the degree of racial segregation in the district. The report found that charter schools "tend to skew whiter than other schools in the same county."

Nordstrom cites examples such as how 80 percent of the students in the four charter schools in Franklin and Granville counties are white while fewer than 50 percent of the students in those two districts are white.

Charter schools have forced the Durham school system to make changes as the district has lost enrollment at the same time that charters have added more students.

"My concern is that if charters continue to proliferate, DPS (Durham Public Schools) will cease to exist and our community will turn into the next New Orleans or Detroit: communities where there are lots of choices, but none of the choices are great," Michelle Burton, school library media coordinator at Spring Valley Elementary School in Durham, says in the report.

Charter schools used to be required to "reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition" of the population in the district where they were located. A 2013 law dropped the diversity mandate and diluted the language so charters must "make efforts" to reflect the local school district's demographics.

There's clear reason to promote integrated schools because research shows it helps all students, Nordstrom said.

"There's not only a moral and economic reason to support integrated schools ... but also lawmakers are now facing a political reason," he said in an email message.

The report has several recommendations, including creating more integrated neighborhoods, requiring charter schools to provide transportation and school lunch and closing charter schools whose demographics significantly differ from the district where they're located. The report also recommends that charter schools use a "weighted lottery" that gives preference to students from certain groups to make enrollments more diverse.

If charter schools are required to provide transportation, then they should get the same resources offered to traditional public schools such as state replacement of old school buses, according to Brian Jodice, interim president of Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

While school districts can redraw their attendance boundaries to try to change demographics of individual schools, Jodice said charter schools don't have that option.

Stoops of the Locke Foundation said it's a double standard to call for only closing charter schools and not traditional public schools whose demographics are significantly different from the district where they're located. He also questioned closing academically successful charter schools due to their demographics.

"I am most comfortable with letting parents decide what criteria to use, and arbitrarily shutting down charter schools because they don't look a certain way would seem to be a destructive policy," Stoops said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui