Segregation in 2018? Resistance builds as NC town charter school bill labeled racist

Calling a controversial charter school bill the latest battleground in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s long war against school segregation, four African-American former school board chairs Tuesday urged North Carolinians to "stand up and fight institutional racism."

House Bill 514, introduced by Rep. Bill Brawley, would allow four majority-white suburban towns outside Charlotte to create their own charter schools, giving preference to town residents for seats. That bill cleared the Senate on Monday and has gone back to the House, which approved it last year, for a vote on changes made in the Senate.

The bill, combined with a change in this year’s state budget that gives municipalities authority to spend tax money on public education, has drawn national attention as potentially upending the landscape of segregation and school choice in North Carolina.

Arthur Griffin, a former school board chair and current chairman of the local Black Political Caucus, called HB 514 "morally reprehensible." Griffin attended schools segregated by Jim Crow law, saw Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools emerge as a leader in court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s, then led a losing legal battle to preserve race-based assignment in the late 1990s.

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"Growing up in Charlotte, my parents didn’t have the resources and political standing to fight institutional racism," he said. "But in 2018, I do. You do. We do. And we need to stand up and fight institutional racism."

He and others present at Tuesday’s news conference said they planned to sue.

"If they pass it, we’re going to court," said George Battle Sr., who chaired the CMS board in the early 1990s.

Current CMS leaders also seem to be considering legal action, with a Monday night memo from CMS government relations coordinator Charles Jeter to the school board and top administrators referring to "recourse through the courts."

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Brawley, a Matthews Republican, and other proponents of the bill have repeatedly said it has nothing to do with race, nor with creating separate suburban school districts.

Students would not be forced to leave CMS even if their towns created charter schools, though CMS leaders have said the prospect could force massive reassignment. And town-sponsored charter schools would admit outsiders, but only after children of town residents have been seated.

Backers say the bill simply gives one more option to towns with overcrowded schools and concerns about a large school district that has sometimes neglected suburban needs.

But support for HB 514 is overwhelmingly white. Brawley and Sen. Dan Bishop, the Mecklenburg Republicans who are leading the push for approval, are white, as are several legislators who voiced approval and voted for it. Meanwhile several black Democratic legislators voiced fears about resegregation.

Three of the four towns that have endorsed the bill and stand to launch their own charter schools — Matthews, Mint Hill and Huntersville — have all-white elected boards. The fourth, Cornelius, has one African-American commissioner on its five-person board, and he cast the sole vote against inclusion in HB 514.

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On Monday, North Carolina NAACP President T. Anthony Spearman denounced HB 514 as a "sneaky and underhanded" attempt to create "Jim Crow independent school districts."

"We understand that too many North Carolina legislators are intent upon destroying public desegregated schools, but we rise to say that this effort will not succeed without an all-out fight from the North Carolina NAACP," Spearman said.

The left-leaning NC Policy Watch and the nonpartisan Public School Forum of North Carolina have also labeled the bill a return to segregation.

Tuesday’s news conference at Little Rock AME Zion Church in uptown Charlotte cast the latest controversy squarely in the history of Charlotte’s struggle between people who want to deny black students an equal education and those fighting for civil rights.

Four African-American former school board chairs — Griffin, Bishop, Wilhelmenia Rembert and Ericka Ellis-Stewart — spoke to the crowd. A fifth former chairman who is white, William Rikard, stood behind them with about 40 clergy and education advocates.

Ellis-Stewart, who remains on the board, took part in weeks of discussions with town of Matthews leaders, who started the push to separate from CMS and/or create town charter schools.

"We were told behind the scenes, ‘Don’t talk about race. Don’t make this about race,’ " she said. "Any of us who know and listen to this conversation, we know that the very root of this is about race."

CMS is currently 38 percent African-American, 28 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian. But most schools are not that mixed. The majority of black and Hispanic students attend high-poverty Charlotte schools with few white classmates, while white and Asian student are more likely to attend low-poverty suburban schools.

Charter schools in the Charlotte region also tend to be racially and economically distinct based on location.

Tuesday’s speakers said they’re not talking about fighting white parents and students, and noted that many suburban residents oppose HB 514.

"I urge you to pay close attention … and say ‘we’re not going to have this in Charlotte-Mecklenburg again,’ " Rembert said. "We want better for all our students: Those in the urban, suburban and remote areas of our county. We want better for our entire community."

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Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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