At the Holiday Inn next to Raleigh’s Crabtree Mall, parents will be shopping Monday for something of great value, and taxpayers will pay the bill. They’ll get the same deal in Winston-Salem on Tuesday and Charlotte on Wednesday.
The events sponsored by the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association will draw parents looking for schools for their children. Over 1,000 people are expected to attend the charter fairs, where they can get information on the state’s 107 existing charter schools, the 25 new ones set to open in August and the more than 150 that have submitted letters to the state indicating they want to open in 2014.
The expansive inventory reflects a successful move by Republican lawmakers in 2011 to lift the previous 100-school cap on charters, publicly funded schools that operate independent of local school boards. More than 50,000 North Carolina children now attend a charter school, a population that could double in a few years. But as the numbers grow, so do concerns.
Charter schools were once regarded as special arrangements in which parents and teachers, freed of bureaucratic rules and educational traditions, could experiment with new approaches to learning. But these laboratories of learning are now mixing volatile elements. They tap into a conservative skepticism about the cultural conditioning imposed by “government schools.” They appeal to middle class parents seeking alternatives to public schools with high percentages of low-income students, or they promote isolation when parents seek schools focused on the needs of minority students.
A report this month from Duke University found that while 30 percent of regular North Carolina schools are racially imbalanced (less than 20 percent or more than 80 percent minority enrollment), more than 60 percent of charter schools are racially imbalanced.
And, ultimately, charters could undermine the quality of traditional public schools by siphoning off funds, good students and committed parents.
Those concerns may yet deepen, but indications are that charters are delivering what they promised: a choice in education that works. And it’s a popular choice. Some charters now enroll more than 1,500 students. Community School of Davidson, an expanding charter that now serves kindergarten through high school, has a waiting list of 3,000 applicants. Raleigh Charter High School has been ranked among the nation’s 100 best public high schools. It holds a lottery to select from too many applicants.
Whether charters continue to work will be up to how well North Carolina oversees their quality. When charters started in North Carolina in the late 1990s, 34 of the first 64 approved eventually closed. The state then imposed a one-year training period for all new charters. Not a single charter that has gone through the training period has closed.
Joel Medley, director of the state Office of Charter Schools, said his office is seeking additional funding and staff to monitor the expanding number of charter schools. “The emphasis is going to be on quality, not quantity,” he said.
The rising appeal and number of charters may dilute the concept or invite abuses. Wake County is now seeking the option of providing money to help build charters, a connection that would encourage charter growth but also subject them to restrictions and reduce their distinctiveness.
And there is the issue of virtual charter schools, an arrangement that draws public money without operating an actual school.
Thomas Humble, principal of Raleigh Charter High School, said that may be one innovation too many. “I like virtual schools. I like charter schools. But I don’t know if putting those two together leaves enough room for accountability,” he said.
For all their growth, virtual or otherwise, charter schools can never replace traditional public schools. But they may teach them a few things.
Judith Rizzo, a former teacher and principal who heads the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute of Educational Leadership and Policy, said if removing red tape and rules helps charters, “Why don’t we deregulate a whole bunch of (conventional) schools? If we think those things are in the way, let’s start weeding them out.”