Freshman Democrat provokes dialogue about education in High Point

by Jordan Green

NC Rep. Marcus Brandon defended his support of charter schools to constituents in High Point’s Southside neighborhood last week. (photo by Jordan Green)

A volunteer carried in aluminum trays of meatloaf, fried chicken, green beans and macaroni and cheese from Becky’s and Mary’s restaurant. Rep. Marcus Brandon and an aide hastily arranged folding chairs in the meeting room at the Southside Recreation Center in High Point ahead of about 35 constituents.

A maverick, first-term Democrat in the NC House, Brandon has distinguished himself as a champion of the workingclass and poor who prefers to engage directly with people in the community rather than staying in the lofty heights of policy since launching his campaign to represent District 60 last year.

That he is the General Assembly’s only openly gay member is a fact that is hardly ever noted by his constituents. If there is any controversy attached to his representation, it concerns his support for charter schools. Skeptical questions from people associated with the teaching profession are a common occurrence at his public events.

“I know we do need a variety of schools to meet the needs of students,” said a retired public school employee who declined to give her name. “But with the economy the way it is today and the decrease of funds for the existing public schools, could you speak to why you raised the cap for charter schools? There are going to be some schools that are going to be losing some of the services that they have because of the cut in funding.”

Brandon responded by saying that funding already follows students who move from school to school, alluding to a federal law that allows parents to transfer out of Title I schools identified for improvement, corrective action or restructuring. Schools in which 40 percent of students are poor are designated Title I, and receive federal funding.

Carvena Foster, a member of the Guilford County School Board whose district covers High Point, contradicted Brandon.

“Title I money does not follow kids from school to school,” she said. “If you’re in a Title I school and you opt out, that money does not follow you to the next school. And that’s mandated by the government.”

A guidance published on the US Department of Education website backs up Foster’s statement.

Brandon praised Guilford County Schools Superintendent Mo Green and the range of choices provided to students by the local public school system.

“We have lots of choices for high schoolers and lots of choices for elementary schoolers; we don’t have that many choices for middle schoolers,” Brandon said. “I envision a couple charter schools here to deal with that population. It’s not like we’re going to have 15 charter schools here. It’s something we can say in theory can happen. If you ever looked at the application and what it actually takes to have a charter school… it’s a very rigorous process, and I wouldn’t imagine that you’d have more than one or two in Guilford County within the next five years. I don’t think it’s going to take away that much money from public schools.”

Brandon has accused his Democratic colleagues of playing political games on the issue of charter schools.

“I fought very hard and worked with the Republicans,” he said. “I worked with them and got ridiculed about it, and people were very upset that I worked with the Republicans. If you look at the Republican bill that I voted for and that every other Democrat voted against, that Republican bill had the fact that you could have transportation if you were 185 percent of poverty, AKA also known as free and reduced lunch, then the charter school would be required to provide transportation and would provide food.”

Brandon said the bill featuring the requirement that charter schools provide free transportation to poor students, which would have benefited his constituents, was set aside, and his Democratic colleagues voted for an alternate bill to remove the cap that did not have the protection.

Those who attended the meeting included teachers, substitute teachers, parents and at least one daycare owner. Brandon shared the program with Foster, who represents the Southside area of High Point on the school board. The two engaged in a cordial and respectful dialogue, but made no attempt to hide their differences on education policy.

“We, in Guilford County, believe in choice as well,” Foster said. “That’s why we have the diversity in the schools that we have. That’s why we have the diversity in schools that we have. We have middle colleges, early colleges; we have magnet schools and traditional schools. And this is to meet the needs of a diverse population of students through out Guilford County.”

Jeffrey Golden, a licensed practicing nurse who is one of Brandon’s constituents, remained unconvinced that charter schools are the answer to the problem of poor performance among students in public schools.

“That money’s coming from one big pot,” he said after the meeting. “I don’t see how it can not hurt the public schools. That’s my opinion.”

A former progressive political consultant, Brandon moved to central High Point as he was gearing up to run for the District 60 seat. Meeting voters in central High Point underscored his conviction that low education attainment and the burden of criminal records are deeply entwined with the stubborn problem of high unemployment.

“The majority of folks in those communities had — either, one, they didn’t have a high school diploma, or they had a felony, which made it virtually impossible for them to get a job,” Brandon said. “And people want to know why the recidivism rate is very high, why people go back to jail, why people are continuing in crime. Well, they have to live a life of crime if they can’t work. People are going to eat one way or another. They’re either going to eat the right way or the way they have to.”

Brandon called a bill entitled Certificate of Relief “probably the most significant thing that we’ve passed this session.” People with certain types of felonies — notably, drug offenses — can go to the clerk’s office at the courthouse and apply for a certificate of relief, prompting a hearing in which a designee of the court may grant relief. As Brandon described it, an ex-felon who successfully petitioned the court would be able to check off the box on an employment application stating that they had not been convicted of a felony, even though the law does not provide for expungement or pardon.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, one of Brandon’s Democratic colleagues in the Guilford County delegation, was among the House bill’s cosponsors.

Brandon said after the meeting that in the next session he would like to focus more on policy initiatives that have a direct economic impact. This time around, he learned something about forging coalitions and weathering political battles.

“You do well when you work with everybody,” he said. “The things that we did well on we took our time with. I also learned that sometimes facts and logic do not matter at all.”