On Wednesday, members of the N.C. House of Representatives were prepared to cast a vote on town-run charter schools with major ramifications for the future of public education, but Rep. Kelly Alexander’s mind was on the past.
In the late 1950s, as Alexander explained, some North Carolinians were urging state lawmakers to pursue predominantly white sub-districts, an attempt to assuage the budding uproar over the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 order to desegregate public schools in Brown v. Board of Education .
Wednesday’s 64-53 vote in favor of House Bill 514 —which would allow municipal charters in four affluent, predominantly white Charlotte suburbs—is an “uncomfortable” reminder, Alexander said.
“I do think that what we are on the precipice of doing is to increase segregation in our school systems,” Alexander added. “Either we are doing it on purpose, and that may be the intent of some folk, or we’re going to do it by accident, by changing the law and allowing segregation to creep back into our education system.”
Rep. Amos Quick, a Guilford County Democrat, pointed out that Charlotte was the site of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education , a benchmark 1971 Supreme Court ruling that mandated school leaders redraw their attendance lines to combat school segregation.
“This proves what the old folks say,” said Quick. “Everything old is new again.”
Moments later, feisty Republicans who supported the measure hit back. “I think we’re skirting the line of questioning the integrity of some of the members of this body,” said Rep. Scott Stone, a Mecklenburg County Republican.
Wednesday’s vote finalized a testy back-and-forth between House and Senate lawmakers in recent days as the legislation, sponsored by Matthews Republican Bill Brawley, made its way through both chambers. Because it’s considered a “local bill,” it becomes law without Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetting.
House members approved a version of the bill last year, but the Senate-approved version that rolled through the House Wednesday added two new Mecklenburg County municipalities. The new law will open up the chance for town-run charters in Matthews, Mint Hill, Cornelius and Huntersville.
The Senate version also stripped state health and retirement benefits for teachers in municipal-run charters, something Brawley promised to address in a later bill this session.
“We are undertaking some brand new territory with how we do education in this state,” said Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat who voted against the legislation.
The municipalities will be able to grant enrollment priority to their residents should they open charters, a sticking point for lawmakers from both parties and another break from the norm.
And House Bill 514’s approval comes amid long-brewing clashes between the Charlotte suburbs and leaders in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), the state’s second-largest school district. Town leaders, particularly in Matthews, complained of overcrowding in schools, and they feared CMS would order long-distance bus rides in order to alleviate well-documented concerns of segregation in the school system.
They also complained that they lacked a voice in CMS decisions, spurring talk of “secession” from the district.
“How desperate must these towns be if they’re willing to spend their own money on something they should have already gotten from the county and from CMS?” Scott said.
Meanwhile, CMS leaders cautioned that breaking up the district or approving municipal charters would only exacerbate segregation on race and class lines .
In all four municipalities, the median income far exceeds the state average. And, in each town, more than 70 percent of the population is white. They are considerably less diverse than the population within Charlotte’s city limits.
The legislation was closely linked to an approved state budget provision that grants municipalities the authority to use property tax revenues on public education, including charter schools. Prior to this year’s budget, that power was reserved to county governments and the state.
Democrats and public school experts said both GOP-offered changes have the potential to drastically alter how North Carolina funds K-12 education , perhaps worsening racial and class divisions, and deepening a growing school funding divide between poor and wealthy areas.
Democrats also suggested the bill’s approval would all but ensure like-minded efforts in the suburbs of other large North Carolina school systems, a topic of interest in places like Wake County.
“This is presented to us as a local bill,” said Alexander. “But its implications are not local at all. We are piecemeal reconfiguring education in this state and not necessarily in a good way.”
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The proposal even spurred opposition from some Republicans in both chambers, who questioned whether municipalities were prepared to run schools.
Debate in the House and Senate focused chiefly on race, even as supporters among state Republicans characterized Brawley’s bill as a localized boon for overcrowded schools in northern Mecklenburg County.
“Everything in this bill is optional,” said Brawley. “Towns are not required to open charter schools. If they do, parents are not required to put their children in charter schools.”
Rep. John Bradford, a Cornelius Republican, argued that the bill came at the behest of local government leaders, not state lawmakers.
“My elected officials in my district have real concerns about capacity,” said Bradford. “They have expressed to me over and over this is not an attack on CMS.”
Public school advocates lambasted the bill in the hours before Wednesday’s vote, which was closer than usual in the GOP-dominated legislature because nine Republicans voted against the measure. Those members were: Rep. Bill Brisson of Bladen County; Rep. Ted Davis of Wilmington; Rep. Josh Dobson of McDowell County; Rep. Jeff Elmore of Wilkes County; Rep. Kyle Hall of Rockingham and Stokes counties; Rep. Craig Horn of Union County; Rep. Julia Howard of Davie County; Rep. Stephen Ross of Alamance County; and Rep. Mitchell Setzer of Catawba County.
Keith Poston is the president and executive director of the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan policy organization that publishes an annual report on the deepening financial divide between schools in affluent and impoverished counties. 
This week, Poston said Brawley’s proposal “set the stage for slippery slope toward further resegregation of N.C. public schools.”
Poston also suggested that the bill would hamper state efforts to attract major business investments from giants like Apple and Amazon, arguing that the legislation “threatens to become our state’s education version of HB2.”
That infamous bill, approved in 2016 and partially repealed a year later, nixed LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections and barred transgender residents from accessing their preferred restroom in government buildings, setting off an avalanche of national and corporate criticism.
“Our nation abandoned ‘separate but equal’ long ago — we don’t need to bring it back in North Carolina,” said Poston.
Rick Glazier, executive director of the progressive N.C. Justice Center, said in a statement Wednesday that the bill’s “risks far outweigh the gains.”
“If the proponents of 514 are right, history will remember little about today’s vote,” said Glazier. “If the opponents, however, are correct, and there is a good chance they are, history will long remember and never forgive those involved in its passage.”
[Disclosure: The Justice Center is the parent nonprofit of Policy Watch.]