By Wendy Lecker
Parents and civil rights groups in North Carolina have sued the State challenging a law passed in 2018 authorizing predominately white, wealthy towns in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district to break away and form town-run, separate charter school districts that could exclude non-town residents. In the lawsuit filed in Wake County Superior Court on April 30, plaintiffs charge that the law violates North Carolina’s state constitutional guarantees of a uniform public school system and equal protection and will exacerbate persistent racial and socio-economic segregation in the county district.
The plaintiffs in the case, North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. State, are the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Branch of the NAACP and two parents with children in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. They are represented by Mark Dorosin, Elizabeth Haddix and Genevieve Bondaies Torres of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm of Tin, Fulton, Walker and Owen, P.L.L.C.
History of School Segregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) has a long history of school segregation. The district was the subject of a major desegregation case in the 1960’s, Swann v. Charlotte–Mecklenburg Board of Education. In that case, in 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court placed CMS under federal supervision to ensure school desegregation. In 1999, white parents succeeded in ending the desegregation order, and CMS was removed from federal court oversight.
CMS then implemented a voluntary, “neighborhood” school assignment plan which, over time, resulted in school resegregation within the district. By 2010, CMS was almost as de facto segregated as it was before Swann was filed to end de jure segregation.
In 2016, the CMS school board developed a plan to increase diversity and reduce the number of schools with high concentrations of poor students. The plan met with strong opposition by elected officials and parents in the mostly white and affluent towns of Cornelius, Huntersville, Matthews, and Mint Hill – all towns within the CMS district.
The Charter Breakaway Law
Desegregation opponents pushed the introduction of HB 514 in 2017 in the North Carolina legislature. The bill would allow the towns of Matthews and Mint Hill to establish municipal, and predominately white, charter schools with admissions preferences that would authorize by law the exclusion of non-resident, low-income students and students of color.
In an effort to appease legislators supporting the bill, the CMS board drastically scaled back its desegregation plan, limiting its effect to only 5% of the district’s students.
At the same time HB 514 was introduced, a State legislative committee studied the viability of breaking up large school districts in the state. That report concluded, in 2018, that breaking up large districts would exacerbate disparities in resources between high- and low-wealth schools and would provide no educational benefit.
In reaction, desegregation opponents dug in their heels and amended the municipal charter legislation to include the CMS towns of Cornelius and Huntersville. The bill passed in June 2018, and because it was considered local legislation, it did not require the governor’s signature under North Carolina law. In vetoing companion legislation to allow teachers in the new charter school district to participate in the state retirement and insurance programs, Governor Roy Cooper made clear that “municipal charter schools set a dangerous precedent that could lead to taxpayer funded resegregation.”
A companion funding bill was passed to facilitate the municipal charters under HB 514 by allowing towns to spend local property taxes to fund charter schools without requiring a voter referendum, as previously required by North Carolina law.
The plaintiffs in the current lawsuit charge that these new laws will drain resources from CMS, increase segregation in CMS, create segregated town charter schools, and deny low-income, non-white students equal access to higher-funded schools.
The Role of Charter Schools in School Segregation
This lawsuit is the latest in an emerging trend of litigation under education guarantees in state constitutions challenging states’ use of charter schools to foster segregation. In 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court allowed a challenge to school segregation in Minneapolis-St. Paul to proceed to trial, noting that segregated schools cannot be “uniform” under that state’s constitution. Plaintiffs in that case charge that the formation of segregated charter schools in those cities and their exemption from desegregation plans play a major role in school segregation.
In February 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court granted Education Law Center’s petition to review the Commissioner of Education’s approval of the expansion of charter schools in Newark without evaluating the charters’ segregative impact on the district or their negative impact on the educational resources available to students in Newark district schools.
Given the growing body of research documenting the lasting negative effects of segregation on the academic and life outcomes of public school students and a history of lax or almost no regulation by states over their charter school programs, these lawsuits seek to hold states accountable to ensure charter schools authorized by their laws do not undermine or jeopardize students’ rights to education under state constitutions.
Wendy Lecker is a Senior Attorney at Education Law Center
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