A bill allowing a few towns to operate their own charter schools is closer to becoming law. The Senate education and rules committees passed House Bill 514 on Wednesday, May 30, but not without criticism.

H.B. 514 would allow four Mecklenburg County towns — Mint Hill, Matthews, Cornelius, and Huntersville — to run charter schools separate from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.

Backers of the bill say CMS is too large, has a wasteful bureaucracy, and hasn’t met the needs of parents and students in towns outside Charlotte. Critics say the towns lack racial and ethnic diversity and the bill would become a template for suburban towns across the state that want to unofficially exit large, urban-centered school districts.

Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, introduced the bill in 2017 because some of his constituents asked for it. H.B. 514 passed the House by a 78-39 margin, but didn’t re-emerge until the short session started in May.

The Senate education committee amended the bill to include Cornelius and Huntersville, allow municipal charter school teachers to participate in the state retirement and health plans, and removed any mention of funding.

“We often speak of the need to improve education in North Carolina. A lot of us believe more parental choice in education facilitates that,” Brawley said. “This is permissive legislation that allows towns to address the educational needs of their children if they feel the need.”

CMS has long been a vocal opponent of the bill. While lawmakers debated the implications of H.B. 514, CMS officials emailed parents and urged them to call their representatives to oppose the bill. The email says H.B. 514 would raise taxes, reduce educational choice, and further segregate communities.

Last week, former General Assembly senior attorney Gerry Cohen released a report outlining seven financial and legal concerns raised by H.B. 514. The report found that a town can’t incur debt for capital construction or land purchases, so Matthews or Mint Hill would have to pay upfront for any land or building purchases. A town can’t use any state money to buy land or pay construction costs, either.

Brawley said technical corrections and the amendment fixed those problems. The revised budget for fiscal 2018-19 includes a provision allowing municipalities to use property tax revenue to supplement funding for elementary or secondary public education.

Still, several Democrats said the bill would lead to racial segregation in the towns that ran charter schools.

“We have tried so hard to have complete integrated schools,” Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg, said. “This is going to make segregation come back.”

H.B 514 gives enrollment preference to families in Matthews, Mint Hill, Cornelius, and Huntersville. Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, and Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, also are worried about segregation and inequitable schooling.

Smith said H.B. 514 would undo the progress made by Brown v. Board of Education.

Brawley wasn’t persuaded.

“I think a mythical bill that does the things that Senator Smith and Senator Robinson are describing would be a problem,” Brawley said. “It’s not something I would support.”

Local families will pay for the charter schools so, Brawley said, the bill gives them preference.

Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, said much of the debate was getting off track and too much time was being spent debating what he called a good bill.

Leanne Winner, director of government relations for the North Carolina School Boards Association, said her organization typically doesn’t get involved with local bills unless they’re precedent-setting. H.B. 514 falls along those lines, Winner said, suggesting other town leaders at odds with their school boards will ask the General Assembly to let them follow suit.

“Once this genie is out of the bottle, you will not be able to get it back in.”

Charles Jeter, government relations coordinator for CMS Schools, said the bill is a proverbial slippery slope, evidenced by how quickly Cornelius and Huntersville jumped in. Jeter took issue with Brawley saying local communities supported the bill and numerous people objected to it at town council meetings.

“Your towns are next,” Jeter warned.

Bryan Holloway, a lobbyist with NCSBA, said cities and towns aren’t typically in the education business and would be charting new territory with this bill.

Cities may not know how to run charter schools, but Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, wasn’t going to let that stop them from trying.

“These cities don’t know a damn thing about running charter schools. However, if these four cities want to screw themselves, I’m going to vote for them to do that,” Tillman said.