N.C.'s cap on charter schools puts a lid on innovation

MCT Regional NewsJuly 7, 2009 

The following editorial appeared in the Greensboro News & Record on July 3:

GREENSBORO -- The state legislature should be getting a message about charter schools by now: Lift the cap.

North Carolina's statutory maximum of 100 charter schools could limit its chances of gaining federal funding through a program called Race to the Top that promotes innovation, U.S. Department of Education officials say.

"States that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top Fund," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced last month. Washington is too apt to use the power of its purse to pressure states to adopt federal policies, but in this case the Obama administration is just reinforcing views the legislature already has heard. Now it's time to heed them.

A Blue Ribbon Commission on Charter Schools last year recommended raising the cap by six each year, and not counting high-performing charters and the first charter school in any county that doesn't have one. In fact, the commission said "a 'smart' cap is needed, with growth based on excellence."

An inflexible cap, in contrast, isn't based on any defensible criteria. It denies the opportunity for excellence if a proposal for a potentially outstanding new charter school is rejected simply because the cap already has been reached. A Race to the Cap isn't the same as a Race to the Top.

The N.C. House of Representatives passed a bill May 13 that would lift the cap to 106 with no exceptions. Even that modest proposal has lain in a Senate education committee without action for seven weeks. A better bill, one that would enact the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission, unfortunately never budged from a House education committee.

Legislative intransigence against significant charter school progress isn't doing North Carolina children any good, and it will hurt the state's chances of securing needed federal funding.

Charter schools don't offer all the answers to public school problems. Some have performed poorly, and there should be quicker state action to fix them or shut them down when they fail their students. At the same time, some of the state's most successful and innovative schools are charters, including Greensboro Academy, rated by the Department of Public Instruction as an Honor School of Excellence, and Raleigh Charter, ranked as the nation's 20th-best high school by U.S. News & World Report.

States that limit charter schools limit their own opportunities to win additional federal funds. More importantly, they may limit choice and innovation that can open doors for students.

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