Predominantly Black Charters Focus of Debate in N.C.

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When North Carolina lawmakers opened the door to charter schools in 1996, critics predicted a rush of "white flight" schools would follow.

It seems precisely the opposite has happened. Of the 33 charters that are up and running, a dozen have student populations that are more than 85 percent black.

Many state charter school supporters say that as long as the schools produce positive academic results--and do not not intentionally block 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 whether--or how--the racial-balance provision of the charter school law should be enforced. State policymakers have spent months trying to resolve the issue in a legal and political climate that looks with growing suspicion at policies drawn on the basis of race or ethnicity.

While many states' charter laws aim to encourage racial diversity, North Carolina's is relatively prescriptive, experts say. Neighboring South Carolina, which has one of the nation's strictest racial-balance rules for its charter schools, has confronted similar issues. ("Racial Makeup at Issue In S.C. Charter Debate," April 30, 1997.)

North Carolina law says that within a year after a charter opens, its enrollment "shall reasonably reflect" the racial and ethnic composition of the general population within the countywide district boundaries or the district's racial and ethnic composition.

Supporters fear the state's predominantly black charter schools may be forced to close. "It's a scary and confusing time for these schools," said Roger A. Gerber, the president of the Association of North Carolina Charter Schools.

'Fear of Resegregation'

For now, the state's charter schools are operating against a shifting landscape.

In July, the state school board voted to allow a statewide charter school 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.

The Raleigh-based North Carolina Foundation for Individual Rights, a conservative nonprofit legal group, plans to file a lawsuit to block the state from enforcing the law's racial-balance provision.

And a bill is moving through the legislature that would soften the 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.

While the state wrestles with the issue, charter schools are not sure what, if any, steps to take as the next school year approaches, said Jack Daly, the executive director of the legal group challenging the state law.

He points to one such school that last year held separate enrollment lotteries for blacks and whites in order to strike racial balance. Such action amounts to an illegal racial quota system, he contends.

State board President Phillip J. Kirk Jr. said he opposes shutting down the charter schools 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 said.

Jane P. Norwood, a state board member and a professor at Appalachian State University's school of education in Boone, said she is undecided on the issue.

"I have a definite fear of resegregation. I am old enough to remember 'separate but equal' in this state," she said. "But I believe in freedom of choice to a certain extent. It's a real dilemma."

Seeking 'Good Schools'

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. In the state's public schools as a whole, 31 percent of students are black.

Roughly half a dozen of the state's charter schools are predominantly white, but many reflect their surrounding communities in the rural western areas of the state, according to Grova L. Bridgers, who oversees charter schools for the state education department.

Experts point to myriad reasons for the high percentage of African-Americans in charter schools, too. Many of the predominantly black charter schools are in majority-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," Mr. Gerber said. "They're fleeing to what they think are good schools. And they are unsatisfied with what they've been getting in traditional public schools."

Balancing Goals

Tom Williams, the director of Healthy Start Academy, said 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 said.

The vast majority of Healthy Start students come from the neighborhood. Of the 320 pupils in grades K-3, four are white. Mr. Williams said he hopes that more white families will give the school a chance once they see the students' impressive test gains.

But the former New York state school administrator, who is white, said his top priority--and his parents' priority--is a high-quality education. True integration, he argued, 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.'"

Vol. 17, Issue 43, Page 22

Published in Print: August 5, 1998, as Predominantly Black Charters Focus of Debate in N.C.
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