We are re-segregating our schools

Published July 25, 2019

By Tom Campbell

I grew up in the “separate but equal” school era, although we knew Black schools weren’t equal. The 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. North Carolina, like other states, studied, stalled, maneuvered, and it wasn’t until 1971, when the Supreme Court ordered Charlotte schools to integrate using busing or whatever methods were necessary, that our state met the Supreme Court’s Brown decision satisfactorily.

Almost 50 years after integration, the school choice movement is now re-segregating our schools. Only 79.9 percent of North Carolina’s 1.8 million k-12 students now attend traditional public schools. The number decreased by almost 6,500 students in 2017-18. Charter schools saw an increase of almost 10,000 and now enroll more than 111,000. 6.5 percent of North Carolina’s $8.93 billion funding is directed to some 200 charter schools.

Private schools also added numbers. In 1961, 17,000 students were enrolled in 166 private schools. Now, more than 102,000 attend more than 769 mostly religious private schools. And since the legislature defined home schools in 1985-86, enrollment has surged from 800 students to more than 142,000 last year.  

Perhaps re-segregation is an unintended consequence of the school choice movement, however many believe it was the purpose from the start. Even though integration is the law of the land, diversity by itself is not the primary goal of education. It is a desirable goal, but not the only one. 

When charter schools were first authorized in North Carolina there was a stipulation that after their first year of operation they were to reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the school district in which they were located. That stipulation was significantly weakened in 2013, and we’ve read reports indicating that in almost a third of charters the student population is 80 percent white. Only 14 percent of traditional public schools have 80 percent or more who are white. In 2015, around 30 percent of students attending charters were from low-income families; in traditional schools, almost 50 percent are low-income students. 

Why? Charters are not required to offer transportation for students; while the state does provide some transportation funding, it does not supply busses. Further, charters are not required to provide breakfast or lunch; those charters that do are not required to offer free and reduced lunches for those who qualify. Additionally, state laws give charters much more flexibility over curriculum, teacher requirements, class sizes, their academic calendars to include teacher workdays and how money is spent. Academic results seem to demonstrate that students in charter schools perform on par or better with those in traditional schools. 

Let’s level the playing field. We would start by mandating that charter schools must provide transportation, with the state supplying buses for students and further require that each charter school had to offer breakfast and lunch and to follow requirements for those who qualify for free and reduced lunches. 

Next, if the charter flexibilities are working well for many of our students why not make them available to all, by giving traditional schools the same freedoms we allow charter schools? We could then see what impact these changes would have on racial diversity as well as performance levels.  

What’s fair for the goose should be fair for the gander.