Huntersville, Cornelius, Matthews, and Mint Hill could operate their own charter schools under a bill that received tentative approval in the state Senate Thursday.
The Republican-led House Bill 514 was designed to address the unhappiness of elected officials in suburban communities about neighborhood school overcrowding and construction by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews told members of a Senate committee Wednesday the bill wouldn’t force anyone to do anything – it merely gives towns a choice when it comes to education.
“We’re talking about the possibility of one charter school in the Town of Matthews, which will not pull all 6,000 students that are currently attending school in Matthews out of anything,” Brawley said. “So I don’t see how it has the sweeping effects that people fear.”
But critics say the bill could open the door for other towns to seek the same power and disassemble conventional urban school districts. Democratic Senator Joyce Waddell of Mecklenburg County said she’s concerned about the racial imbalances the bill could create in schools and classrooms.
“We’ve tried so hard to have complete, integrated schools,” Waddell said, “What this is going to do is it’s going to make segregation come back in many of our schools.”
CMS Board of Education Chair Mary McCray said the bill could also result in disparities across economic lines.
“This bill is basically taking us back to the dual system of having cities that are prosperous and counties that are not,” McCray said.
Five GOP senators ended up voting against the bill, but the measure still got the preliminary OK in a 30-20 vote.
The bill would give the towns of Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius the option to apply for and then create charter schools. Those schools receive government funds but are controlled internally, not by the traditional district school board. Unlike the more than 170 current charter schools statewide, the municipal charter schools could give enrollment preferences to children of town residents.
"Adequate seats in northern and southern suburbs have not been met," Sen. Dan Bishop, a Mecklenburg County Republican representing Matthews, said during the debate. "This is a pilot, think about it that way ... this is a modest, moderate step."
Democrats from the Charlotte area and elsewhere said municipal residents could now be taxed twice for schools — once by Mecklenburg County commissioners for the school system and the other by town council members for the charter. The state budget being voted on this week also would allow municipalities to pay property tax revenues to help fund public schools of any kind.
There would be no guarantees that children of town residents can attend the municipality's charter school. Still, Republican Sen. Rick Horner of Wilson County said, giving preferential treatment to city residents "is a radical departure" in the rules for charter schools since they began in the mid-1990s.
"I think it's bad policy," Horner told colleagues. "I would urge you to vote against the bill."
Sen. Joel Ford, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, said he is sympathetic to the frustrations of the smaller towns, and blames the school system, whose board opposes the measure, for failing to listen to the concerns of suburban residents. But Ford said municipal charter schools are the wrong solution.
"They're going to divide up our community geographically on the north and the south end and they're going to divide us up by race," Ford said.
The debate got testy near the end, with Republican Sen. Bill Cook of Beaufort County complaining that some Democrats suggested those who support the bill are harboring racism. But Democratic speakers said the bill would create unintended consequences, even if backers had upright goals.
The measure would return to the House if the Senate gives the measure its final approval next week. The House version of the bill approved last year applied to only Matthews and Mint Hill, but Huntersville and Cornelius were added after their elected leaders asked to be. Since the measure only covers four communities, the measure wouldn't be subject to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto stamp. Cooper has expressed concerns about the change, however.