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A New Form Of Segregation?

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When North Carolina lawmakers opened the door to charter schools in 1996, critics predicted the new schools would be lily-white. Precisely the opposite has happened. Of the 33 charters that are up and running, a dozen have enrollments that are more than 85 percent black.

Charter school supporters in the state say that as long as the schools produce positive academic results--and do not intentionally turn away students based on their race--those figures should not be cause for alarm. But North Carolina law suggests otherwise, and a debate has ensued over how the racial-balance provision of the charter law should be enforced, if at all.

While charter school laws in many states encourage diversity, North Carolina's is more prescriptive than most. The law states that within a year after a charter opens, its enrollment "shall reasonably reflect" the district's racial and ethnic composition. As a result, supporters fear the state's predominantly black charter schools may be forced to close. "It's a scary and confusing time for these schools," says Roger Gerber, president of the Association of North Carolina Charter Schools.

In July, the state school board voted to allow a special statewide advisory committee to determine on a school-by-school basis whether a charter school's racial imbalance is justified and what action, if any, the state should take.

That didn't satisfy the Raleigh-based North Carolina Foundation for Individual Rights. The conservative nonprofit legal group, plans to file a lawsuit to block the state from enforcing the law's racial-balance provision.

Meanwhile, a bill is moving through the legislature that would soften that provision to require only that schools make a "good faith effort" toward achieving diversity. But both critics and supporters of the proposed change say it is unlikely to survive the legislative process.

State school board President Phillip Kirk Jr. opposes shutting down charters for racial reasons and points out that there are nearly all-white or all-black traditional public schools in the state. "I don't think charters were intended to resegregate the schools," he says.

Jane Norwood, another state board member, is undecided on the issue. "I have a definite fear of resegregation," says Norwood, a professor of education at Appalachian State University in Boone. "I am old enough to remember 'separate but equal' in this state. But I believe in freedom of choice to a certain extent. It's a real dilemma."

A recent U.S. Department of Education study found that most charter schools are similar to their districts' racial and ethnic breakdowns, but about a third are more likely to serve minority students. Close to 49 percent of North Carolina's charter school students are black, compared with only 31 percent of the state's public school population.

Currently, about half a dozen of the state's charter schools are predominantly white, but most are in the rural western part of the state and reflect the racial makeup of the surrounding communities. Experts point to similar reasons for the high percentage of African Americans in charter schools. Many of the mostly black schools are in black neighborhoods in large cities like Raleigh and Durham, and some were launched by black community leaders.

"People aren't fleeing the public schools because of race," says Gerber of the state charter school association. "They're fleeing to what they think are good schools. And they are unsatisfied with what they've been getting in traditional public schools."

Tom Williams, director of the predominantly black Healthy Start Academy, says that when the school organizers wrote their charter, they never expected they would draw anything but a mixed student population. But the search for an affordable building led them to a poor and mostly black neighborhood in Durham. Although the organizers tried to talk the 40 white students who had signed up last year into staying, they all withdrew, he says.

The vast majority of Healthy Start students come from the neighborhood. Of the 320 pupils in grades K-3, four are white. Williams has hopes that more white families will give the school a chance once they see his students' impressive test gains. But the former New York state school administrator, who is white, says his top priority is a high-quality education, not racial diversity.

True integration, Williams argues, comes from the upward economic mobility gained through education. "I hear parents say: 'My kid is reading a year above grade level, and I don't care whether he's sitting next to a white student or not.' "

--Lynn Schnaiberg

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