Point of View

Better charter schools

April 11, 2011 

— The debate over new charter school legislation has been one of the most ideologically and emotionally charged in this year's General Assembly. However, there are some principles which charter enthusiasts and antagonists alike must recognize. Foremost is the fact that a good charter school law facilitates the development of effective and equitable charter schools, while a poor charter school law does quite the opposite.

As it currently stands, the bill under consideration in the General Assembly does not establish an adequate system of charter schools oversight. The law would create a new charter schools commission with members appointed by the Senate, House of Representatives, governor and the superintendent of public instruction. The commission would likely contain a charter-friendly majority, establishing an atmosphere that is not favorable for objectively evaluating the state's charter schools. Any rejection of the commission's action by State Board of Education would be subject to litigation.

Additionally, the law continues the practice of granting 10-year charters with a nebulous assessment of school success on the fifth year. Few states grant 10-year charters, and even fewer postpone the evaluation process until the fifth year of school operation. The state Department of Public Instruction's Office of Charter Schools prefers to use the term "monitoring" instead of "oversight." However, a vague, unstructured monitoring visit every five years sounds more like a checkup than a thorough examination.

Since the charter shools office has been reduced to a skeleton crew of three employees in charge of 99 charter schools, this is to be expected.

A practical and timely progression of charter schools evaluation and oversight would: 1) provide charter schools with an opportunity to reflect on their successes and shortfalls; and 2) provide DPI with the opportunity to objectively assess educational quality and administrative stability, and to compare the charter school to traditional public schools with comparable student demographics.

Requiring charter schools to submit a third year "reflection" identifying strengths and areas in need of improvement would facilitate academic growth and allow the schools to make necessary adjustments.

The charter school would be able to examine and develop plans that minimize student attrition and teacher turnover - major concerns for charter schools nationwide. Additionally, after the school's third year, a cohort of students who have been exposed to its pedagogy can accurately be compared to similar students throughout the district.

After charter schools have reflected upon their first three years of operation, they would be primed to prepare and submit an application for charter renewal. This provides a space for a more in-depth look into how the school has performed and how it plans to proceed. The application should address three primary questions which should be answered before recommending renewal:

1) Has the school been an academic success (for example, with respect to academics, parent engagement and school culture)?

2) Has the school been a viable organization (governance and community support)?

3) Has the school been in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations (for special populations, equity issues and school safety)?

Granting five-year charters and determining charter renewal by January of the fourth year of operation would provide assurance to parents, businesses and community members. Parents would be aware of the quality and viability of charter schools in their area without waiting five years or subjecting their students to a subpar education.

Both the current charter school law and the proposed legislation are far from what the state needs to foster educational choice and innovation, the stated intention of introducing charter schools into the public school system. Having three staff members responsible for overseeing the operation and instruction of 99 charter schools renders the evaluation process inconsistent. Adding insult to injury, for five years at a time charter schools are left completely unaccountable.

Though sponsors of the charter school bill have taken a few baby steps in the right direction since it was introduced in January, the legislation still opens the charter school floodgates without directing the flow. Excellent charter schools will blossom under a good law that provides adequate accountability and support. Thus, the only thing we stand to lose by properly supporting charters and holding them accountable are the schools that flounder under such scrutiny.

Would you want to send your child to a school that avoids accountability and is one of more than 100 schools barely evaluated by three people twice a decade? Parents ought not to be forced to make such a choice.

Tyler Whittenberg is an education and law policy fellow at the N.C. Justice Center (ncjustice.org).

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