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Civic lessons from a ‘rock star’ North Carolina mother

Monica Raab earned unexpected public attention and acclaim when she handled her wriggling 18-month-old son with motherly aplomb as she addressed the Matthews Town Council. “Watch ‘rock star’ suburban mom deliver flawless speech while wrangling restless tot,” said The Charlotte Observer headline.

Raab, a 35-year-old mother of three, had arrived on a rainy evening with her children in tow to urge her town’s governing body to oppose legislation that would allow Matthews to establish a charter school. A school board member captured the meeting on video streamed on Facebook.

The Matthews council subsequently voted 4-3 to support the measure. Now, the North Carolina General Assembly has enacted legislation that permits four Mecklenburg County towns to charter new schools. A court case challenging the new law surely is in prospect. And, in any case, the measure, which has statewide as well as local import, deserves further scrutiny for its implications not only for schools but also for the state’s social fabric.

As endearing as was her tender handling of her son, especially remarkable was what Raab actually had to say in her five minutes before the Matthews council in late April. Raab grew up in Oklahoma, married a Duke law school graduate now at a Charlotte law firm, and earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She told the council that they chose Matthews for its small-town feel with big-city resources.

Raab began with a couple of practical objections: the potential for increased traffic with charter schools not providing bus rides and the prospect of higher local taxes. Then she moved on to a serious, widespread concern stemming from the proliferation of charter schools: racial segregation.

“We’re going to see increased segregation, and that goes hand-in-hand with decreased upward mobility,” she said. “When the American dream takes a hit, that’s bad for everybody.”

In an investigative story posted this week, the Hechinger Report, an online publication based at Teachers College of Columbia University, revealed that 115 charter schools have a percentage of white students at least 20 points higher than any traditional public school in the same district. The Hechinger nationwide investigation found more than 700 charter schools “whiter than nearby district schools.” An earlier Associated Press survey found that more than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,700 charter schools had a minority enrollment of at least 99 percent.

The law enacted this month by the legislature applies to four mostly white, affluent municipalities – Matthews, Mint Hill, Cornelius and Huntersville. It provides that these suburban communities can give preference to their own residents in enrolling children in local charter schools. Thus, the concern among Raab and other opponents has to do with the potential of mostly white charter schools leaving nearby traditional public schools with heavier enrollments of children of minority and poor families.

In addition to facing resegregation squarely, Raab depicted the charter-school issue as a microcosm of societal frictions that could impede North Carolinians in keeping their state both competitive and just. She repeatedly defined the issue as “an important choice between community and conflict.”

Under such legislation, she said, “we’re going to see a reduced sense of community and an increased sense of isolation. I think what we get out of this is Matthews for Matthews and the heck with everyone else. That is not a lesson we want our children to absorb growing up into a worldwide community and valuing the diversity of experience we see in our current public schools.”

Indeed, city-suburban population growth and economic dynamism increasingly reconfigures the face of North Carolina — raising important questions and choices on both a personal and policy level. Can families really thrive only by pursuing self-segregation or their own self-interest? How can North Carolinians build a sense of community in fast-growing cities and towns — and sustain community institutions and infrastructure vital to the quality of life that metropolitan residents desire?

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.