A legislative vote Wednesday opened the door for four Mecklenburg County towns to create their own charter schools — and to what critics say could be the further segregation of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
The controversial bill won final approval in a 64-53 House vote, capping a year-long debate. Because it's a local measure, the Senate-passed bill does not need approval from Gov. Roy Cooper.
The bill allows Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius to create and run their own charter schools. A separate budget provision allows them and municipalities across the state to spend property taxes on schools, an authority now generally reserved for counties and the state. One official called it a "monumental" change in state policy.
Asked how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will respond, Charles Jeter, the government relations coordinator, said "everything's on the table" including legal challenges.
Sponsor Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican, said House Bill 514 gives the towns options. Matthews Mayor Paul Bailey said the town has no immediate plans to open a school.
Other supporters said the bill is a response to frustration that Charlotte suburbs aren't getting a fair shake from CMS.
"They have stressed to me over and over this is not an attack on CMS," said Rep. John Bradford, a Cornelius Republican. "My towns want to make clear they (want) an option and this bill gives them this option.”
But critics predict the bill will lead to further segregation in CMS. On Tuesday four former CMS board chairs, all African-American, gathered to denounce the bill.
Arthur Griffin, a former chair and current chairman of the local Black Political Caucus, called the bill "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.
On Monday, N.C. NAACP President T. Anthony Spearman invoked the days of segregation and Jim Crow. He called the bill a "sneaky and underhanded" attempt to create "Jim Crow independent school districts." Critics picked up the argument during Wednesday’s House debate.
"What I do think we're on the precipice of doing is to increase segregation in our school systems," said Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Charlotte Democrat. "Either we're going to do it on purpose … or by accident."
Democratic Rep. Amos Quick of Guilford County said it was ironic that this bill would pass and apply to Mecklenburg, which gave rise to the U.S. Supreme Court's Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. The ruling upheld the use of busing to integrate schools.
But bill supporters said CMS has not done a good job for the entire county. Republican Rep. Scott Stone of Charlotte pointed to a nearly $1 billion bond issue for school construction passed last year. He said most of the money was directed by politics, not need, as suburban areas got virtually shut out.
"Do the towns really want to go through this hassle of having to set up charters?" he asked on the floor. "If CMS was meeting their needs they wouldn’t have to."
CMS also has come under fire from bill opponents. During a Senate debate last month, Democratic Sen. Joel Ford of Charlotte said, "CMS is arrogant, they don't listen, they are not transparent or accountable with the $1.5 billion budget they have to spend . . . I can understand the frustration of the parents in (the four towns)." Ford voted against the measure.
Critics also said the bill sets a precedent for towns and cities across the state to set up their own schools.
In the House, nine Republicans sided with 44 Democrats in opposing the bill.
Bailey, the Matthews mayor, said his town, like the others, now has options.
“With the passage of HB 514, we now have the right to provide another public school option for families in Matthews, should it be needed in the future," he said in a statement. "While we are fortunate to have excellent schools in Matthews, the problem is there are too few of them and CMS has indicated that new schools in our area are decades away."
Staff writer Ann Doss Helms contributed.