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A bill that would allow four towns served by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system (CMS) to create their own charter schools received initial approval in the Senate today, despite objections from some that too many unanswered questions remained about the legislation. The vote was 30 to 20, with five Republicans voting against it. It needs to be voted on one more time before it passes the Senate completely. That vote will happen Monday. 

The debate in committees yesterday revolved around the fact that allowing these mostly affluent towns to create their own charter schools could lead to inequities between their schools and district schools, and might pave a road back to segregation. Others said it would lead to a higher tax burden on town residents who might not even attend the schools. And some critics also complained about a provision in the bill that allows the towns to give preference for students in the town to attend the schools. Regular charters, with some exceptions, cannot pick and choose who attends their schools. Many of the same complaints were mirrored in the Senate floor debate today. 

“To be exclusive as to an attendance zone is a radical departure from … charter school history,” Sen. Rick Horner, R-Nash, said. “It totally undermines the charter school system being open to all.”

House Bill 514 would have originally allowed the towns of Matthews and Mint Hill to form charter schools run by the local government. They would be subject to all the other restrictions and oversight as regular charter schools. The bill passed the House last year and was heard in the Senate for the first time yesterday in the Senate education committee. It was amended there to include two more Charlotte-Mecklenburg towns (Huntersville and Cornelius), allow teachers at such schools to participate in retirement and health plans the same as any other charter school teacher, and remove all of its funding elements, which are now being taken care of in the budget.

The bill faced some obstacles after a report was released last week by former long-time General Assembly staffer Gerry Cohen. Cohen found a number of issues with the bill, including the fact that towns can’t use property taxes to build a school without a referendum and aren’t allowed to take on debt for school-related purposes without holding the taxpayers liable. However, when the budget dropped Tuesday night, it included a provision that allows municipalities to use property taxes for school-related purposes, and it absolves taxpayers from being liable for any debt taken on. 

While some Republicans had questions and concerns about the bill, the bulk of the criticism came from Democrats. 

Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, who has children in CMS schools, took a few moments to acknowledge the deficiencies of CMS before explaining why he wouldn’t support the bill. He said that in his experience, CMS is “arrogant,” “do not listen,” and “are not accountable.” But this bill wasn’t the way to help the students in the four towns listed. 

“I would like to see CMS humble itself, come back to the table, and find a better solution for those families,” he said. 

Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, said the big problem with this bill is that while it’s a local bill, it has statewide implications, and she said it isn’t proper to consider it during the short session. 

“When you allow cities, municipalities, to run their own school system, there are unintended consequences,” she said. 

Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, said the costs of these charter schools for these towns were not being made apparent to residents. 

“I still haven’t heard any proponents of this bill level with these towns about how expensive this is going to be,” he said.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, who voted for the bill, still expressed criticism for the very idea that a locality would run a charter. 

“They don’t know what they’re getting into, and cities have no business running charter schools,” he said. “But if their city councils and citizens want this, why not give them a chance?”

Proponents of the bill did not let the criticisms go unchallenged. 

Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, represents all four towns in the bill and says they all passed resolutions expressing interest in this plan. And he said that this bill isn’t about demeaning CMS. 

“Let’s not make a mistake, this is not about picking on CMS necessarily,” he said, before speaking about the town leaders who want to start charters. “They’re not naive about what they’re looking at getting into.” 

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said that these towns are being overlooked by CMS. He pointed out that there are schools in Mint Hill where none of the town’s residents are able to attend. Instead, they have to drive further away to go to other schools. 

“That’s nothing than the board not listening,” Hise said. 

Smith and some other Democrats brought up the potential that the bill could lead to resegregation in these towns. Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, responded to these criticisms by asking Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, if he or any of the people involved in supporting this bill were racist. Bishop said no. 

Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, asked Cook why he went down that line of questioning, leading him to defend his comments. He said he had heard too much “implication that we’re all a bunch of racists.”

“That’s not true and I find great offense in it,” he said. “All my life, I’ve done everything I could to not be a racist.” 

Bishop echoed those sentiments when he said: “I don’t think the specter that’s been raised by some people is reasonable.” 

After the bill passed, Robinson took a moment of personal privilege to speak more on issues of racism and what Cook had to say about it during the bill debate. 

“To stand and to say that ‘I keep hearing all this stuff about racism’ is saying that we’re ignorant,” she said. “It either means that there is no concept in terms of history of this country, or there is an excuse to ignore what’s going on.”

She went on to reference Cook by name and say: “I take offense to the need for you to ignore what is real. All of us should know the history of this country and how we’ve struggled.” 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.