There have been a lot of regressive education policies that have emanated from the North Carolina General Assembly in recent decades. Even prior to the Republican takeover that commenced in 2011, many Democratic leaders had already embraced the flawed conservative idea that our schools and students were struggling in many places because they were too “soft” and lacked sufficient “competition.” Hence, the early-century moves to introduce charter schools, dramatically expand the number of high-stakes, standardized tests and limit so-called “social promotions.”
In the last seven-plus years of GOP rule, the relative trickle of conservative education schemes has turned into a flood. Lawmakers have slashed funding, dramatically expanded charters (including for-profit, virtual charters), introduced private school vouchers, “education savings accounts,” “performance-based pay,” and state-initiated conversions of struggling schools to charter schools, and talked openly and repeatedly of privatizing what has long been understood to be a core function of government.
As unhelpful as each of these developments has been, however, they may well end up paling in comparison to the new and dangerous two-part change that’s currently making its way into law during the current legislative session.
At issue is the enormously controversial and dangerous plan to fundamentally alter the way North Carolina funds public schools by allowing individual cities to get into the business of running and funding public schools. Under the plan approved by the Senate last week, four wealthy suburbs of Charlotte that are angry with the administration of the county school system would be granted authority to fund their own charter schools and give priority admission to their towns’ students.
The plan is so radical and potentially game-changing that it actually drew negative votes from five Senate Republicans last week  – something that almost never happens in that intensely partisan body – and is now attracting national attention. In an article entitled “Unchartered Territory: A new kind of charter school could shake up the battle over school choice and segregation,”  U.S. News & World Report education reporter Lauren Camera explained that House Bill 514 “opponents say the effect would be similar to allowing the jurisdictions to secede from the school system, a practice increasingly used by wealthier communities to break off from larger, more diverse districts and take a disproportionate amount of their funding in the process.”
To make matters even more complicated and worrisome, the plan doesn’t stop with the bill allowing municipal charters. A provision secretly slipped into the budget bill that was sent to Gov. Cooper last Friday contains another, even more extensive provision that authorizes North Carolina municipalities to spend property tax revenues on any public school that “benefits the residents of the city,” including charter schools.
The implications of this change are potentially massive. If the provision becomes law, wealthy cities will be empowered (and likely pressured) to start funneling their municipal property tax revenues to schools that enroll students from within their borders.
Not only will this likely place many city leaders in a dreadful political position (a League of Municipalities spokesperson worries about what he calls a “cascading effect” whereby local school districts will now pass on their needs to cities rather than counties and the state), but it raises tremendous potential problems when it comes to equity and integration.
Michael Griffith, an expert in various states’ K-12 funding models with the rigidly nonpartisan Education Commission of the States , told Policy Watch that it’s not hard to predict what will come next.
“Cities within those districts want to use their own money,” he said. “They don’t want to share it. They want to keep it, and it tends to be the wealthier suburbs.”
He continued: “What you can see happening is when you talk about separation, you usually talk about separation of the wealthy part of the district from the poor part. It becomes racial pretty quickly. It becomes divided on class lines and on racial lines.”
Veteran education policy expert Kris Nordstrom put it more plainly in a commentary  for NC Policy Watch last week regarding the combined impact of the bill and the budget provision:
There’s a word for what happens when majority-white suburbs pull their children from a majority-minority school district and place them into exclusionary, majority-white schools: segregation.”
In other words, if the two provisions are allowed to become law and survive a constitutional challenge (far from a sure thing) it’s likely that all hope will be lost when it comes to the longstanding societal imperative of constructing a reasonably uniform and integrated system of county-wide school systems.
Instead, North Carolina will be transformed into a vastly more inequitable state than already exists – a crazy, widely varying patchwork of haves and have nots in which wealthy cities dominate and wealthy white enclaves within them seek to break off and form new and even more exclusive municipalities.
And when that happens, the North Carolina so many of us know and love will be permanently transformed for the worse. Let’s hope sanity prevails.