At the direction of a state bill introduces this summer, a committee of lawmakers last month began studying how to break up large North Carolina school districts and county/city systems that had previously been merged. It’s the first step in a sweeping move that could see some of the state’s largest school systems, including Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, split into smaller districts.
Proponents of the bill- which passed along partisan lines in June, with the mainly Republican support- argue that school districts which had been merged to save money, as Wake and Raleigh schools were in 1976, could be run more effectively as smaller economies of scale. Entire county school systems wouldn’t have to close down for weather events that affected only some parts of the county, for instance, and some students might be able to attend schools closer to their homes.
But opponents of the move, including many Democrats, say splitting up school districts could lead to a re-segregation of schools along racial and economic lines. Wake County Commissioner John Burns, a Democrat, has been outspoken on the issue recently; Wake County is the state’s largest school system, and the nation’s 15th largest, with 160,429 students. “This study commission is being assembled to study a bad idea,” Burns said in a February statement. “Dissolution of the Wake County Public School System into smaller systems would raise taxes, cement social and economic inequities, reduce performance, and result in worse outcomes. We have an excellent school system in Wake county. Through it, we all support all of our children. If the state wants to investigate ways to improve that system, they could increase state funding, pay our teachers more, and reduce the burden of standardized testing.”
The study committee, composed of nine Republicans and three Democrats, will hear presentations on the size and structures of the state’s school districts and how smaller and larger districts compare. It’s expected to report back on its findings in May, including on whetter to punt the issue to voters via local referenda.