NC bill would foster racial segregation of Mecklenburg County schools

Juan Rodriguez, (far left), Blake Dearborn, Jeremiah Chisholm and Matthew Bull look over football books in the media center at J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville in Mecklenburg County.
Juan Rodriguez, (far left), Blake Dearborn, Jeremiah Chisholm and Matthew Bull look over football books in the media center at J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville in Mecklenburg County. The Charlotte Observer

House Bill 514 would allow the Mecklenburg County towns of Matthews and Mint Hill to secede from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School district and set up town-run charter schools. A recent report identifies a host of financial problems with the proposal; even more troubling however, is the fact that the bill will allow these towns to create racially segregated, white enclave schools for their residents, subsidized by all taxpayers.

HB514 is part of an ongoing campaign by the General Assembly to undermine public education in general and racially diversity in schools in particular. And while that campaign includes recently developed proposals for turning over public schools to private charter operators, taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools, and expansion of charter schools with minimal oversight or regulation, the tactic of legislatively creating white enclave districts to avoid integration goes back over 50 years.

In 1965, the school districts in Halifax County were under pressure from the federal government to begin integrating students. As was true across the South, the school systems resisted, offering a series of incremental and limited “freedom of choice” plans designed to continue to delay any meaningful integration. Despite protests from the African American community and repeated rejections of these plans by the Department of Health Education and Welfare (the forerunner to the Department of Education), local school board leaders remained defiant.

Following a 1968 Supreme Court decision that held that schools districts had an affirmative duty to achieve meaningful integration, the US Department of Justice ordered district leaders to complete the process of integration by the 1969-70 school year. Desperate to avoid true integration in Halifax, which would have resulted in majority African American schools throughout the county, local leaders turned to the General Assembly.

The legislature quickly passed a bill to create new school districts in Scotland Neck and in the Littleton-Lake Gaston areas (straddling the Halifax/Warren County border). These two districts promised to create white enclave schools in these predominantly non-white counties. The Scotland Neck district, established to have 60% white students, included an open transfer policy that would boost its white enrollment to 80 percent.

During the debate on the bill, then Rep. (later Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court) Henry Frye argued for simply consolidating the existing districts in Halifax County. Opponents of integration instead expanded from three school districts to five.

The DOJ and African American residents quickly challenged the legislation as an unconstitutional attempt to maintain segregated schools. The District Court agreed, holding that the statute created an unconstitutional “refuge for white students” designed to “preserve a ratio of black students to white students that would be acceptable to white parents.” The U.S. Court of Appeals reversed, claiming that despite the county’s intransigence in the face of the desegregation orders, the white enclave plan was a legitimate “action by the legislature redefining the boundaries of local government.”

The U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Fourth Circuit, holding that if state policy interferes with federal constitutional guarantees, it cannot stand, and noting that “the fact that the Scotland Neck school district was authorized by a special act of the state legislature. . . . has no constitutional significance.”

The Court also specifically discussed the fear of white flight from the public schools (an argument often raised today in opposition to student reassignment to address growing resegregation), saying that while that may be a concern of school leaders, “it cannot . . . be accepted as a reason for anything less” than complete integration.

In the 1970s, white families seeking to withdraw from public school to avoid integration were forced to bear the financial burden of their prejudices. That’s no longer true. With the unchecked expansion of charters and vouchers, and now House Bill 514, the legislature has enthusiastically embraced a philosophy fundamentally at odds with democratic principles: the subsidizing of private biases with public monies. These policies only serve to further divide, alienate, and exclude — and in that way they cause the social and economic harms public education was designed to address.

Mark Dorosin and Elizabeth Haddix are co-directors of the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights.