*note: This article was republished by the Washington Post
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. Halifax County ranks 90th out of 100 NC 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% white, while only 4% of those attending Halifax County Schools are white.
If you read the charter application 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 $5000 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’s 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 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 8th grade Social Studies and Civics & 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 fifty years ago, and it appears below:
Hobgood Academy was founded in 1969 and opened in September 1970. IMO, 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 Rep. 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 HCS, 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 $5000 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.