In June 2018, when the North Carolina state legislature enacted a law that allowed four affluent, majority-white suburbs to secede from the racially diverse Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, or CMS, and establish their own municipal charter schools, with admission priority given to students living in the local communities, critics called the law “a new way to effectively resegregate public education” and “a return to the days when some whites in the South resisted the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.”

So far, none of the four majority-white suburbs around Charlotte have succeeded at breaking away from CMS and sequestering their children in predominantly white charter schools, but an obscure federal government program is helping them resegregate education, nevertheless.

According to an analysis by the Network for Public Education (NPE), published in the Washington Post, a five-year grant of $26.6 million from the federal government’s Charter Schools Program (CSP) was awarded to North Carolina in 2018 and is being used to finance “white-flight academies,” including existing and new charter schools in the majority-white communities that tried to break away from CMS.

Referring to her organization’s analysis, NPE executive director Carol Burris explains that North Carolina used funds from its federal government grant to finance charter schools that have “significant overrepresentation of white students or a significant underrepresentation of Black students compared with the population of the public school district in which they are located.”

Specifically, of the 42 charter schools that “received CSP grants via the North Carolina Department of Education,” 30 have reported demographic information, and among those schools, more than one-third (11) have much higher percentages of white students compared to public schools in their home districts, says Burris. Among those 11 schools with racial imbalances, four schools are located in or near two of the four majority-white communities that tried to split off from CMS. Two more grant recipients are also in or near these majority-white communities but have yet to report attendance data.

“The purpose of the award was to support ‘high-quality schools focused on meeting the needs of educationally disadvantaged students,’” Burris told Our Schools in an email. But her organization’s analysis finds that “most” of the charter schools that the state awarded federal money to “have served and still serve as white-flight and affluence-flight alternatives to the local public schools.”

Federal Support for Resegregating the South

When the bill allowing communities to secede from CMS and start their own charters was first proposed in 2017, proponents claimed it was about improving education through “more parental choice,” Carolina Journal reported.

Opponents argued that should the bill become law, which it eventually did, it would “undermine” the efforts being undertaken in CMS to have more racially mixed schools, according to NC Policy Watch. The district, which was once “lauded as an example of what successful integration could look like,” according to a 2016 article in the New Yorker, had more recently reverted to its segregated past due to a series of court decisions and actions by state and local governments.

Opponents of the new law also pointed to clear evidence that the expanding charter school sector in the state was already increasing segregation, and they have called for “a really honest conversation about what charters are designed to do and what they’re actually doing,” said Justin Perry, a Charlotte parent and chair of OneMECK, an advocacy group that seeks to provide fair and equal education opportunity to all CMS students.

It’s hard to believe that officials in the U.S. Department of Education were unaware of this debate when they were weighing in on the decision of whether or not to award North Carolina with a charter school grant.

The evidence linking charter schools to increased racial segregation is well known, particularly in the South, and there is a significant body of research showing that allowing smaller suburban communities to break away from large metropolitan districts is also a contributor to racial segregation.

Further, it is well known that charter schools in North Carolina are helping to effectively resegregate the state by enrolling students who are generally much whiter and wealthier than the public schools in their host districts.

As NC Policy Watch reports, the four suburbs targeted to leave CMS and start their own charters—Cornelius, Huntersville, Matthews, and Mint Hill—are overwhelmingly white—81.5 percent, 76 percent, 75.1 percent, and 70.1 percent, respectively, as of 2018—compared to CMS with just 28.6 percent white enrollment as of the 2016-2017 school year.

So, for the federal CSP to award North Carolina what some considered to be an overly generous grant shortly after the state had enacted a new law allowing white suburbs to peel away from CMS seems either naïve or intentionally opportunistic.

Further, North Carolina state officials who divvied up the federal grant money to individual charter schools, at best, seem not to have closely examined applications for the funds.

In her email, Burris said, “As we [NPE] went through the North Carolina subgrant applications, we saw the same problems we have seen before with CSP grants. Several applicants either falsified or cherry-picked the data they shared.”

“For example, the Hobgood Charter School, a former voucher academy, reported their percentage of economically disadvantaged students [in 2020] was 66.96 percent [in their subgrant application],” Burris continued. “However, according to the North Carolina State Report Card, the percentage [of economically disadvantaged students] during the year Hobgood applied [for a subgrant in 2019-2020] was only 18.7 percent.”

In short, “If you could write a good narrative, you [got the money],” Burris said.

A School With Only 213 K-8 Students Got $600,000

One of the first subgrant recipients, which received a $250,000 award in 2019, was Bonnie Cone Classical Academy, located within a 10-minute drive from the center of Huntersville. The charter school is disproportionately white (44.2 percent) compared to CMS, where white students comprise only 25.8 percent of total student enrollment.

A 2020 grant recipient, with an award of $700,000, is the Community School of Davidson, located near Cornelius. As Burris writes in the Washington Post, the charter school converted from a formerly private school, which operated from a Baptist church. “The year [2020] it received its grant, 84 percent of its students were white,” she notes. In 2021, the school was still predominantly white (82.4 percent) and only 3.4 percent Black and 6.2 percent Hispanic. Nearby Cornelius Elementary School is significantly more racially mixed, with a student population that is 63.7 percent white, 12.6 percent Black, and 15 percent Hispanic as of 2021.

Another 2020 recipient of a $700,000 grant, Bradford Preparatory School, is located less than a 20-minute drive from the center of Huntersville. The school is majority white (50.1 percent) and only 28 percent of the students are Black. Contrast that to nearby North Mecklenburg High School, which is 59.8 percent Black and has only 9.4 percent white students.

Lakeside Charter Academy, located at a Cornelius address, received a $600,000 grant in 2020. The school has all the appearances of an elite private school with only 213 students, spread out across K-8 grade levels, who are majority (51.6 percent) white, with lunch service catered by a local restaurant; although, the evaluation description of the school’s grant application stated the school intends to provide “a free or reduced lunch program through the ‘Apple a Day’ catering company.” It seems hard to believe this school really needs the $600,000 grant.

Two more grant recipients—Telra Institute charter school, which received a $400,000 grant, and Huntersville Charter High School, which also got a $400,000 grant—are in Matthews and Huntersville, respectively, but have yet to report any student demographic data (Telra Institute has only recently opened, and Huntersville Charter High School has yet to open). But given the tendency of North Carolina state education officials to be agnostic about allowing federal grants to fund schools with racially imbalanced student enrollments, it’s hard to believe these schools will be exceptionally diverse.

Local Opposition to Resegregation

While the federal government continues to fund charter schools that are resegregating these communities, there are signs that local opposition may use the democratic process to stymie the effort to resegregate CMS through breakaway charters.

Study commissions created by local governing boards in Huntersville and Cornelius to examine how their communities would use charter schools to secede from CMS came away with divergent conclusions. While the Huntersville commission recommended seceding from CMS and forming a municipal charter or partnering with existing charters, the Cornelius commission presented pros and cons of this move in such a way that it persuaded the mayor to express strong doubts about making any changes other than to remain in CMS.

In the 2019 mayoral election in Matthews, voters tossed out the incumbent mayor Paul Bailey, who supported municipal charters, and the challenger who took his place, John Higdon, joined with the town board of commissioners to stick with CMS. Mint Hill, according to the Charlotte Observer, “did not actively pursue joining on to the legislation” allowing the community to establish its own municipal charters.

In 2020, the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Branch of the NAACP, and two parents with children in CMS filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming that the law allowing community secession from CMS is an attempt to resegregate the district that “violates the state’s constitutional guarantees of a uniform system of free public education.”

Also in 2020, William Brawley, the state House representative who sponsored the bill that legalized secession from CMS, lost his reelection race. Brawley’s victorious Democratic opponent, Rachel Hunt, daughter of former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, criticized the vote on allowing schools to secede from CMS, according to the Charlotte Observer.

In the run-up to the election, as WFAE reports, “Democrats believe[d] they [could] flip the seat, in part because of the controversy over House Bill 514, which lets Matthews and three other municipalities build and operate their own taxpayer-funded charter school districts.” Looks like they were right.

(Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages, CC BY-NC 4.0.)