To Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos, what's happened with the county's two fast-growing charter schools over the last few years isn't an accident.
Rather, the fact that these schools are about 90 percent white—compared to traditional Orange County public schools, which are about 50 percent white—is indicative not only of longstanding Republican efforts to undermine traditional public education but also of a new wave of segregation.
White parents are pulling their kids from Orange County Schools' more diverse public schools to pack them into homogenous charters—and in the process, they're placing a burden on minority parents while straining the county's budget.
"So many people are getting their news from Fox News and these questionable sources that prey on their fears," Marcoplos says. "It's all this divisiveness around race that is just boiling to the surface."
From 2006–16, according to the National Charter School Alliance, enrollment in charter schools across the country grew from 1.2 million to 3.1 million. North Carolina has seen a similar story, encouraged by a General Assembly that, in 2011, repealed a law capping the number of charters that could operate in the state.
Consequently, between 2012 and 2017, enrollment in North Carolina charters grew from about forty-five thousand to just over one hundred thousand, now spread across 173 schools. In northern Orange County, enrollment over that period grew from 254 to 799—more than tripling in size, now to about 10 percent of the OCS's total enrollment.
OCS's charters appear to have absorbed many of the white children whose parents have recently moved into the area, as well as some white kids who transferred from traditional public schools.
In some ways, this is the opposite of national trends. According to a report this year from the National Center for Education Statistics, much of the nationwide growth in charters has been driven by African-American and Latino students.
But it does resemble what's happening elsewhere in North Carolina.
Before the legislature removed the cap in 2011, state law required charters to assist gifted students and those struggling in traditional public schools. In addition, the 1996 law that authorized charters mandated that they have the same ethnic makeup as their traditional counterparts. Those requirements, however, were eliminated.
Helen Ladd, a Duke researcher who studies charters, says these early policies were in place to prevent the kind of segregation the state is seeing today and to ensure that charters worked with school systems to provide services that traditional schools couldn't.
But when the cap was lifted, Ladd says, everything changed.
In a 2015 paper, she argued that North Carolina's charter schools are "increasingly serving the interests of relatively able white students in racially imbalanced schools."
At the Orange County Board of Commissioners' May 1 budget meeting, Marcoplos and Commissioner Penny Rich voiced concerns about white flight toward the county's charters, arguing that these schools could be catering to racial biases.
Orange County's other school district, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, hasn't seen a similar migration toward its two charters. Together, these schools account for just 1 percent of CHCCS's enrollment, and they don't have the same types of racial disparities that OCS's charter schools do.
Marcoplos isn't sure why parents of CHCCS students seem to be more satisfied with their traditional public schools. According to the state's testing data, CHCCS schools aren't superior, and their graduation rates are only slightly better. (Both districts have graduation rates among the highest in the state.)
One possible answer: CHCCS schools have fewer African-American and Hispanic students and more Asian students, who are stereotyped as being studious. Perhaps white parents feel more comfortable with their kids in that environment.
But there's another, less-cynical explanation, says Brian Crawford, who helped start The Carter Community Charter School in Durham and ran an unsuccessful campaign for Orange County commissioner this year.
A key difference between OCS and CHCCS schools, according to a Department of Public Instruction report, is discipline problems. In 2016–17, OCS had five times more crime than CHCCS. And OCS had 452 suspensions for about eight thousand students, while CHCCS had only 220 suspensions for almost twice as many kids.
Many times, Crawford says, young black males get caught up in this disciplinary morass or school-to-prison pipeline. But his charter school, which is 90 percent black, doesn't have those issues.
In Crawford's view, it's the public school system, not the charters, that are driving blacks and whites to segregate. They're creating discipline problems where none need exist.
"We don't have rampant fights every day in school," he says. "We don't have police hauling them off to jail. We don't have teachers saying 'arrest them!' So, in our mind, we have been successful with the experiment. The experiment is how you educate kids on a daily basis without making them part of the juvenile justice system."
At Carter Community, there are no school resource officers and no student suspensions. The result is fewer discipline problems, Crawford says.
Crawford says the lack of student diversity is an issue in his own school. The racial composition of charters isn't reflective of the real world, he adds.
"Public schools are actually a great place for civic engagement," he says. "You want your kid to be a captain of industry? They can't be captains of industry supervising all white people; they have to learn how to work with and feel comfortable with many different kinds of people."
Critics argue that the problem with charters is that they don't exist in a vacuum. As they grow, they suck more and more money away from traditional public schools. In a paper released earlier this year, Ladd, the Duke researcher, wrote that Durham charters were pulling $500–$700 per pupil away from traditional schools.
"This is going to start making it harder for public schools to provide quality education," says Ladd.
In Orange County, where the growing charters are nearly all white, that could leave the increasingly minority traditional schools underfunded.
Students who move to a charter school carry with them money that has already been earmarked for public schools. Next year, OCS projects that it will lose about $3.7 million on 924 charter school students, $500,000 higher than the current year. Even when an OCS student goes to a charter outside of Orange County, that money still follows him or her.
About one hundred Orange County students go to other counties to attend charter schools. The biggest group goes to The Voyager School in Durham, which has forty-seven students from Orange. That's $187,000 in taxpayer money that doesn't go to OCS. Indeed, it doesn't even go to a school in Orange County.
There are thirteen public schools in the OCS system. Each has fixed costs—teachers, facilities, athletic fields, lights, etc.—that don't change even as students move to charters. This process drives up the school system's per-student operating costs and puts a greater burden on taxpayers.
In 2012, Orange County allocated $25.7 million to OCS; for next year's budget, the county manager has recommended giving the school system $33.4 million. The county is looking at raising property taxes to help cover these rising education costs. While the school system's budget has shot up by a third, the number of students has risen at a much slower rate, by about one thousand kids, or roughly 12 percent.
Most of this is unrelated to charters, and instead has to do with the county trying to make up for insufficient state funding.
But while the state's per-pupil education funding is down almost 9 percent since the recession, adjusted for inflation, the General Assembly has boosted spending for charter schools dramatically in the last two decades, from just over $16 million in 1997 to more than $580 million for the 2017–18 school year.
The two charters in OCS's territory, Eno River Academy and The Expedition School, are free. Admission is by lottery, but luck isn't always enough, as neither school provides transportation. (Lisa Bair, executive director of the Eno River Academy, says it would be impractical for her school to do so because it has students from nine counties.)
This lack of transportation primarily affects students in low-income households, says OCS communications director Seth Stephens. Many of these students are minorities, which is one reason the charter schools are so white.
Moreover, the current state system for allocating funds to counties for busing could actually be preventing charters from getting buses.
The DPI uses a formula to evaluate how efficient a school system's buses are. Less efficient systems get less money; Stephens says that if Orange County charters tried to use the OCS bus system, the school system's rating would drop, and OCS could lose out on state dollars. After all, charter students come from all over, and transporting them would likely require more buses to carry fewer kids greater distances.
"I think it could cause a crunch," Stephens says. "It could put some serious pressure on the funding."
For now, though, those concerns are theoretical, because the charters have not approached OCS about the possibility of busing.
Marcoplos says he feels like his hands are tied when it comes to charter school expansion.
"They're such a major player in the county that we've actually begun to ask ourselves how we can work with them instead of just observe them as an outside force," he says.
With few regulations and the potential for unlimited growth—not to mention a growing population moving to Orange County—being an outside force is working out pretty well for charters right now.