Much of the debate over the future of the UNC Center for Civil Rights – which comes to a head Sept. 8 – has been couched in abstract terms such as academic integrity, institutional governance and educational reputation.
All are important issues, but obscured in the discussion has been the on-the-ground impact of the center in the small towns and rural communities where the center’s lawyers and law students do their work.
I’ve had the opportunity to see that impact in Halifax County, where the center has joined forces with local civil rights advocates seeking to redress the egregious educational inequity that keeps the county’s schoolchildren at the lowest rung of North Carolina’s public school rankings.
In a county with fewer than 7,000 students, Halifax County commissioners maintain three separate school districts that vary starkly in student performance, funding and racial makeup. The Halifax County and Weldon school districts are 95 percent non-white, while the Roanoke Rapids district is 65 percent white. The Halifax and Weldon systems rank near the bottom in student achievement test scores among the state’s 115 school districts, while Roanoke Rapids ranks nearer the middle.
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Funding has been similarly disproportionate, with the Halifax district receiving the smallest share of local tax revenues.
The Center for Civil Rights is part of the UNC School of Law. For a decade, it has been in Halifax providing academic research and legal support to force local and state leaders to provide every student the “sound basic education” required by the state Constitution.
In 2011, the center issued a 65-page report urging that the three districts in Halifax be merged.
Since then, Halifax parents have unsuccessfully sought to remedy the situation through political and other channels. They lost a referendum in 2012 to create a supplemental tax for Halifax schools, lost a school merger vote before the Halifax County Board of Commissioners and failed in efforts to elect pro-merger candidates to the board.
Finally, in 2015, local parents and guardians of African-American children filed suit in state court to force the commissioners to remedy the imbalance, presumably through merger. Their lawyer is the UNC Center for Civil Rights.
The case did not make it to trial. In a terse 2-page ruling in January 2016, a state Superior Court judge dismissed the suit, agreeing with the county commissioners’ dubious proposition they have no constitutional responsibility “to implement and maintain a public education system for Halifax County.”
The Halifax parents appealed to the State Court of Appeals, and oral arguments, by the center, were conducted in September 2016. A decision has been pending for 11 months.
The Halifax parents obviously hope the decision will be in their favor. But even if it is not, local advocates say, the intervention of the center already has improved conditions for the Halifax schools.
After failing in a 2012 county-wide referendum to create a supplemental school tax for the county schools, Halifax parents tried again in 2016. In a surprise even to the advocates, voters passed the referendum last November by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. This was a remarkable reversal from 2012, when the referendum failed 22 percent to 78 percent. The result will be new funding for the Halifax schools of up to $2 million annually.
Local advocates maintain that the attention to the school situation, brought about in large measure by the UNC Center’s lawsuit, resulted in the turnaround.
John Espenshade, political action chair for the Halifax County chapter of the NAACP, pointed out that the African-American parents never would have had the resources on their own to go to court. The Civil Rights Center did the work pro bono.
But such legal advocacy would be banned in the future if the proposal to be considered by the UNC Board of Governors on Sept. 8 is approved. (The proposal would allow the center to complete pending legal actions, including the one in Halifax.) The litigation ban would effectively put the center out of business, an action that UNC faculty, the law dean and the UNC chancellor say would do immeasurable harm to the UNC Law School’s national standing.
Espenshade was among the supporters of the center who spoke at a rally Aug. 1, before a Board of Governors committee recommended the ban. “What has happened in Halifax County could happen statewide without the Center for Civil Rights to stop it,” he said. “It is not surprising that those who oppose social justice, civil rights and quality education are now attempting to stop the Center for Civil Rights.”
Ted Vaden, of Chapel Hill, is former public editor of The News & Observer.