For the first time, North Carolina municipalities now have the authority to apply for and to operate charter schools after the General Assembly gave final approval Wednesday to the measure.
The legislation gives the option to four Charlotte-area communities whose officials sought it — Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius — because of complaints about overcrowded public schools in their areas and the lack of new school construction.
The Senate voted for the bill earlier this week. With Wednesday's 64-53 vote in the House, the bill becomes law. Since it's a local measure, the bill isn't subject to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto.
Critics have threatened a legal challenge in court, however. Opponents argue the measure sets a precedent for other towns to seek the same authority — leading to the dismantling of conventional school districts — and will exacerbate racial segregation in classrooms.
The changes take on added emphasis in Charlotte because the school system was involved in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in the early 1970s that upheld busing students to address racial disparities in schools. A judge lifted a mandatory busing order in the late 1990s.
Elected officials in the towns said they had no other choice to seek the power because they say the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system has failed to address their students' needs despite negotiations. The charter schools, if approved through the same state process other charter applicants must follow, could give enrollment preferences to students living in their town limits. Other charter schools can't do that.
Mecklenburg County already has 20 charter schools, but many have large waiting lists, the bill's chief sponsor said.
"We are trying to address the needs of people not of great wealth and who don't have access to private schools," said GOP Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, calling the new authority a "reasonable attempt to address the needs of their constituents."
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board opposed the legislation, and former African American board leaders held a news conference Tuesday in Charlotte vowing to fight "institutional racism" like what's in the measure.
"What we are on the precipice of doing is to increase segregation in our school systems," said Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Mecklenburg County Democrat and member of a prominent area family in the civil rights movement. "We are piecemeal reconfiguring education in this state and not necessarily in a good way."
Separate legislation would be required for other municipalities to operate charter schools. There are more than 170 charter schools in North Carolina.
The state budget bill approved last week by the Republican-controlled legislature also gives new power to towns and cities to spend property tax revenues on any kind of public school. Currently only county commissions or a handful of municipalities that have their own school districts can spend tax revenue on schools.