This is the story of how North Carolina’s legislators took a bad bill that affected only one county and turned it into a fundamental and damaging policy change that will affect the whole state.
Lawmakers were considering House Bill 514, which would allow Matthews and other suburban Charlotte towns to open and operate their own charter schools. They were told that it might conflict with state law that prevents municipalities from taking on debt to pay for public schools. Schools in North Carolina have long been funded by the state and counties, not cities.
So they inserted a workaround in the budget that allows municipalities to avoid such debt by using property taxes to fund schools. They passed the budget days later, with almost zero vetting of this colossal change. That clears the way for them to undermine Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools with HB 514, but, separate from that bill, it also opens the door to worsening resegregation and creating a dual system of rich and poor school systems from the mountains to the coast.
The idea of allowing cities to fund schools at first seems tantalizing. North Carolinians have long been frustrated when politicians tell them they have separate pots of money, and that this money can only be used for this and can’t be used for that. Think of Charlotte’s hotel-motel tax, which has been used for the Panthers and the Hornets and the NASCAR Hall of Fame because by law it can’t be used for police or garbage pickup or schools.
So the change passed this week would seem to create a giant new source of revenue for schools, who surely need it. But there are at least three problems:
▪ Cities don’t have money lying around for schools. Cities like Charlotte are raising taxes as it is just to cover current expenses. So where are they going to find money for substantial investments in schools?
▪ This change is the camel’s nose in the tent, the likely beginning of the state reducing its commitment to schools and putting the burden on cities and counties. The N.C. Constitution requires the state to provide a uniform system of schools with "equal opportunities ... for all students." But the new law could give the state incentive to do that with a smaller investment and a bigger burden on local taxpayers.
▪ The change is likely to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and to widen the urban/rural gap. Small rural municipalities don’t have the money to pour into schools and so depend on state funding. Neither do big cities, so shifting that burden will harm all school systems, but it will hit those those in rural and poorer municipalities hardest. It is also sure to widen gaps within school systems along lines of class and race.
Such an enormous change deserves deep study before being made policy. But deep study and thoughtful debate is not how this legislature operates.