On both sides of the debate over a proposed charter school in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district the language is polite and respectful, and intentions are good. But still the proposal creates tensions, largely because it envisions a different answer to what racially integrated public schooling should look like in 21st century America.
That answer, as backers of the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School see it, is to create a charter elementary school - publicly funded, with a local board of directors but owned and operated by a for-profit company in Michigan - that would attract, mainly but not exclusively, minority youngsters. It would focus, proponents say, on closing or eliminating the "achievement gap" in testing between minority and white students in Chapel Hill.
In doing so, the school apparently aims to draw a substantial proportion of the existing minority student population from the district's 10 public elementary schools to the new school. That, in integration-minded Chapel Hill and Carrboro, goes down hard with many residents, as it does with the local NAACP chapter, which has come out against the plan.
The school board has not taken a position on the Lee Scholars application, which is up for approval before the state Board of Education, but Chapel Hill-Carrboro Superintendent Thomas Forcella openly disputes the charter school backers' claim that the district isn't making progress in closing the achievement gap. Forcella also notes that the charter school's aim of attracting minorities, if successful, would serve to lessen diversity in the existing schools - a detrimental effect.
The Lee school's proposal is especially ambitious, claiming it will start operations next summer with nearly 500 kindergarten-to-fifth-grade pupils. Even if the state board favors the plan - and the view here is that it should not - the board should find a way to put off the opening of any such school by at least a year to minimize disruption and to allow Chapel Hill-Carrboro to explore the consequences of what would be a major change in public education.