The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new story of school segregation in North Carolina: A private white-flight academy is turning charter

Teachers rally in Raleigh, N.C., last May. (Gerry Broome/AP)

Last summer, the North Carolina legislature passed legislation permitting four towns with mostly white populations to create their own charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. At the time, North Carolina teacher and blogger Justin Parmenter wrote this:

While some charter schools in some states have helped low-income students improve academically, in North Carolina they’ve been used predominantly as a vehicle for affluent white folks to opt out of traditional public schools. Trends of racial and economic segregation that were already worrisome in public schools before the [charter] cap was lifted [in 2012] have deepened in our charter schools. Now more than two-thirds of our charter schools are either 80 percent+ white or 80 percent+ students of color. Charter schools are not required to provide transportation or free/reduced-price meals, effectively preventing families that need help in those areas from having access to the best schools.

Now Parmenter and educator Rodney D. Pierce are telling a new story of school segregation in North Carolina, this time a private white-flight academy that is being allowed to turn itself into a charter school and operate with public funds. The story is about Hobgood Academy, which was founded in 1969 as desegregation efforts were underway in the city and private “white flight” schools were established to maintain segregated education.

Parmenter teaches seventh-grade language arts at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte. Pierce is an eighth-grade teacher of social studies, civics and economics at William R. Davie Middle STEM Academy in Halifax County. A graduate of the Halifax school district, he was recently named the 2019 North Carolina social-studies teacher of the year.

Pierce was tapped as a “Local African American Hero” by Halifax County Schools in 2013 and received the MLK Dream Keeper award from the Roanoke Valley Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 2018. He was named one of his district’s Most Outstanding Beginning Teachers in 2018.

He is a fellow in the Public School Forum of the North Carolina Education Policy Fellowship Program, one of 17 programs across the country administered through the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington. He is also a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Understanding the American South Teachers Summit fellow, and a Carolina Oral History Teaching fellow in civil rights.

Pierce serves as an adviser to the Student Government Association at his school and as a member of the district’s public-relations committee.

This appeared on Parmenter’s blog, “Notes From the Chalkboard,” and he gave me permission to publish it.

By Justin Parmenter

Last month, the North Carolina State Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the conversion of Halifax County’s private Hobgood Academy to a public charter school. Halifax County ranks 90th out of 100 North Carolina counties in terms of per capita income, and more than 28 percent of its residents live below the poverty line — nearly double the national average. Hobgood’s student population is 87 percent white, while only 4 percent of those attending Halifax County Schools are white.

If you read the charter application that Hobgood submitted to state officials, you might be inclined to think that the very purpose for the school’s existence is to lift children out of poverty by offering them a better education.

The application notes the “low performing” status of the public schools in the area and the “vicious cycle of poverty” that contributes to that low performance. It lays out the applicants’ supposed view that “the potential exists to turn the tide of poverty in this community through excellence in education” and refers to Hobgood as “the perfect place to impact the most vulnerable of our children.”

The real reason Hobgood is converting to a charter school is something entirely different. In the application’s section about enrollment trends, applicants admit to a “significant decline in enrollment,” acknowledging that the private school’s $5,000 annual tuition could be a barrier for some families.

A Google Site called “Let’s Charter Hobgood,” set up to organize Hobgood parents to push for the charter conversion, shows the motivation has nothing to do with extending opportunity to people who don’t currently have it.

Rather, it is for parents of students who already attend the school to be able to keep going there without paying tuition. In addition, responses to recent questions that are posted on the parent site include the statement: “No current law forces any diversity whether it be by age, sex, race, creed.” The question isn’t posted, so you’ll have to infer what it was.

Hobgood’s conversion to a charter school means the school could see a windfall of more than $2 million from the state. Of course, that money is coming out of someone else’s pocket. Remember those impoverished students Hobgood’s charter application claimed to be so concerned about? They’ll be paying much of that tab via pass-through transfer funding from Halifax County Schools.

Halifax County’s entire education budget, including community college, is $11.2 million. In the Department of Public Instruction’s most recent facility needs survey, the district reported $13.3 million in capital needs, including more than $8 million in needed renovations to existing school buildings. Financially, Halifax County school district is most definitely not in a position to be bailing out private schools.

The history of racial segregation in Halifax County is crucial to understanding what is currently playing out.

Rodney Pierce teaches eighth-grade grade social students as well as civics and economics in Halifax County. An avid local historian, he was recently named the 2019 North Carolina Council for Social Studies Teacher of the Year.

Shortly after Hobgood Academy’s charter was approved, Mr. Pierce posted a comprehensive Twitter thread in response to a News & Observer article about the move. The thread offers a lot of relevant background information around the founding of Hobgood Academy 50 years ago, and it appears here:

Hobgood Academy was founded in 1969 and opened in September 1970. This was a direct response to the U.S. Justice Department’s rejection of the Halifax County Schools District’s plan of desegregation in March 1969 that did not comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The county’s white residents resisted integration in public education so much so that the late representative Thorne Gregory, who was from Scotland Neck, actually filed a bill in January of 1969 to establish a separate school district for his hometown.

Blacks made up only 18 percent of the town’s population at the time and the bill would allow the town’s mayor and commissioners to set up a five-member school board and establish a supplemental school tax of 50 cents for each $100 property valuation. Additionally, there were 8,000 black students and 2,300 white pupils in Halifax County Schools, a ratio of nearly 4:1.

Thorne’s bill passed the House in February 1969 and the Senate in March, with some impassioned pleas from late Senator Julian Allsbrook of Roanoke Rapids. The Justice Department filed suit against the district in June 1969 and the case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the plaintiffs in June 1972 (U.S. v. Scotland Neck City Board of Education).

Given the proximity of the town of Hobgood to the city of Scotland Neck, and the history of white residents of Scotland Neck attempting to establish their own separate public school district, I don’t think it’s a reach to think that some of those families who resisted integration banded together to start a private academy for their children. The school’s website says families from five counties worked together to start the school.

Now at the same time, Thorne’s bill allowed Warren County and Halifax counties to attempt to start new districts in Warrenton, Scotland Neck and the Littleton-Lake Gaston area. The irony of turning to the same public school system you resisted decades ago to save the institution you started to resist integration — through Opportunity Scholarships, vouchers and now a charter system.

As stated in the article, it was the third time that Hobgood has applied to become a charter school. According to an NAACP amicus brief filed in 2014, Hobgood’s enrollment was 95 percent white. Today, it is 88 percent white, largely due to the Opportunity Scholarship program.

According to the article, “Hobgood Academy could receive more than $2 million a year in state funds, up from the $69,300 a year it now gets from the voucher school program. Eighteen of Hobgood’s 98 students receive vouchers. Whites make up only 4 percent of students in Halifax County Schools. The Hobgood community is 49 percent African American and 46 percent white.

I neglected to mention that the desegregation plan of Halifax County Schools in March 1969 also did not comply with the 14th Amendment.

Additionally, [Halifax County Representative Michael Wray] wrote a letter in 2017 supporting Hobgood’s charter application, saying “As the economy has declined, the number of families able to pay tuition has fallen.” What about the families who never could afford to pay that tuition until recently?

In view of Hobgood’s sordid segregationist history, it’s worth asking which students will want to apply to attend Hobgood Charter Academy now that the $5,000 tuition is no more. What’s certain is that children who remain in Halifax County Schools will continue to suffer from an ever dwindling pool of resources as a result of our state’s broken charter school policy.