Though they are sometimes dressed up in prettified language about “freedom” and “choice” and “market forces,” the main items at the heart of the conservative agenda on public education really haven’t changed much over the last several decades since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. When one really gets down to brass tacks, three principal and closely intertwined objectives stand out:
- privatization (transferring public education assets and resources to private actors),
- re-segregation (ending the societal commitment to the intentional integration of the public schools that remain) and
- secession (allowing communities – typically those that are whiter and more affluent – to break off from larger consolidated districts to form smaller, less-diverse districts).
The privatization push has been especially aggressive in North Carolina in recent years and can be seen in, among other things, the creation of a state vouchers program, the rapid expansion of charter schools, the establishment of a so-called “Innovation School District” (in which private operators will take over struggling public schools), the aggressive push to support and expand home schooling and the systematic disinvestment in education funding generally.
A similar pattern, sadly, is true when it comes to the closely related topic of re-segregation. In his new and powerful report “Stymied by Segregation: How Integration Can Transform North Carolina Schools and the Lives of Its Students,”  veteran education policy analyst Kris Nordstrom puts it this way:
Over the past 10 years, there has been an increase in the number of schools isolated by race and income in North Carolina’s traditional, inclusive school districts. In 2006-07, there were 295 schools where more than 75 percent of the students were persons of color and from low-income families. By 2016-17, there were 476 such schools…. In 2006-07, 13 percent of North Carolina’s traditional schools were isolated by both race and income, compared to 19 percent in 2016-17.
The growing share of racially and economically isolated schools should be a warning sign that our school system is becoming more unequal, not less.”
And while Nordstrom notes that that there are several possible explanations for the re-segregation trend – some attributable to policymakers and some less obviously so – it is undeniable that state and local leaders have retreated from the goal of affirmatively advancing the cause of integration. This is perhaps most painfully obvious in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County schools, where once-widely acclaimed integration systems have been allowed to wither on the vine.
Several decades ago, Charlotte-Mecklenburg residents who were rightfully proud of their recently integrated schools booed then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan for assailing school busing. Today, as Nordstrom reports:
Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s dissimilarity index of 0.55 [a measurement of how many students would have to move to have a perfectly balanced and integrated system] makes it by far the most racially segregated district in the state.”
The new push for secession
Though conservatives have had success in other states in pushing item Number Three on their agenda (school district secession) this has not, thus far been the case in North Carolina. At present, the state is home to just over 10 million people and 115 school districts. The vast majority of the state’s 100 counties operate a single, consolidated district. In contrast, the state of New Jersey, with a population of just over nine million people, operates 678 school districts . Texas is home to more than 1,000 districts.
Unfortunately, as many have feared for years, the push for secession is rearing its head in North Carolina. Last week, the new “Joint Legislative Study Committee on the Division of Local School Administrative Units” held its second meeting at the state Legislative Office Building. The committee was created by legislative leaders last summer  to, among other things, examine “the feasibility and advisability of enacting legislation to permit local school administrative units that were merged from separate units to be divided into separate local school administrative units once again.”
Happily, thus far, the secession push has been fairly muted during the first two meetings. In last week’s meeting, in particular, speakers raised several warning flags regarding the concept.
A presentation from legislative staff , for instance, pointed out the possible legal and constitutional pitfalls of secession – noting that, since 2001, more than a third of attempted school district secession efforts have failed around the country, often due to court challenges:
When looking at how or why districts have seceded, the primary constitutional issue relates to the Equal Protection Clause and segregation.”
Meanwhile a presentation from Department of Public Instruction staff raised numerous other concerns – not the least of which would be the loss of efficiencies and, ultimately, much higher costs. According to the presentation, for instance, “Dividing facilities into regions could result in multiple insurance contracts for property and liability exposures.”
The presentation also forecasted the possibility of increased costs with respect to transportation and reduced buying power for individual school districts as well as all sorts of local tax policy confusion. The presentation also highlighted the prospect of confusion and increased costs with respect to all sorts of contracts that local districts negotiate in such varied areas as:
Teachers, staff, professionals, and administrators, Service providers (e.g., speech and occupational therapists), School construction and maintenance, Vehicles and drivers, Insurance, Subscriptions (e.g. ., IT, software, instruction materials), Vendors (e.g., equipment, instruction materials, facility items, copiers, computers, furniture), Use of facilities, Data sharing agreements, Grant projects, [and] Partnerships with private industry, universities, non-profits.”
Such issues are among the many that afflict areas like Halifax County , where one of the state’s less well-off regions still, for a variety of problematic reasons, remains home to three separate (and segregated) school districts.
But, of course, even if one moves past the myriad practical reasons to steer clear of legislation allowing secession, its close association with segregation and re-segregation ought to be reason enough. As Nordstrom’s report observes near the end:
During the 2017 session, the General Assembly considered and rejected bills to allow mostly-white communities and corporations to form their own, exclusive charter schools, and they must continue to reject such measures. Additionally, lawmakers must closely monitor the newly-created Joint Legislative Study Committee on the Division of Local School Administrative Units to ensure that this committee does not recommend re-dividing large urban districts on the basis of income or race.”
The bottom line
The battle to save our public schools from conservative ideologues and profiteers who would divide them up and sell them off will be with us for many years to come. Indeed, there are few other policy fights that go more directly to the core of the debate regarding the purpose of government in 21st Century America.
North Carolina progressives would do well, therefore, to stay alert and engaged and to take heart from the fact that, at least in the important area of school district secession, they are holding their own in this critically important fight.