Keeping an eye on charters

April 2, 2013 

When the charter school system was created by the General Assembly in 1996, the schools were to serve as laboratories of sorts, free to experiment with courses and teaching methods that might prove useful in conventional public schools. It also was thought that the schools, typically smaller than regular ones, might be better suited to teach at-risk or gifted kids.

The intention was, in other words, to create a complement for mainstream public education.

It was not, most definitely not, intended to give birth to a separate public school system.

But that will be the result of legislation now under consideration in the General Assembly, a Senate bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman of Archdale with a companion measure in the House.

Tillman is buying into arguments from charter school advocates that charters are viewed skeptically by the State Board of Education, which has oversight of charters as part of its mission.

If there is some skepticism in the “education establishment,” as critics of public schools like to call them, it is not entirely unjustified. While some charters have indeed succeeded and been effective for students and satisfying for parents, others have had tremendous racial imbalance and difficulties with other measures of performance. The cap of 100 charters, since broken, was intended to see to it that charter schools didn’t come into being, with the responsibility of educating young people, without careful thought and planning.

Public schools

The schools, after all, are funded with public dollars. They’re exempt from some rules, such as requiring certification for all teachers and adhering strictly to the 180-day school calendar. They can experiment with curricula. They don’t have to provide breakfast and lunch or transportation.

That kind of freedom can mean more parental involvement and more imaginative field trips and the like, but it’s obviously still important that the students get a good basic education and succeed on standardized tests measuring progress.

That’s why, even with the freedom they enjoy, charters have been under the State Board of Education and the elected state superintendent.

Tillman wants to create a separate, 11-member governing board made up mostly of charter school advocates appointed by the governor and the legislature. The state superintendent would be a non-voting member. Charters would no longer be required to have 50 percent of instructors to hold teaching certificates. And each charter would be allowed to determine on its own whether to require background checks for employees.

The risks

Tillman dismisses objections of some that adding an oversight board would in effect create a second public school system in North Carolina, but that’s exactly what it would do. The notion of not requiring a certain percentage of teaching certificates on a faculty is irresponsible and risky, and would increase the chance that well-intentioned instructors who lacked credentials would fail to give students the skills they need. And diminishing the power of the state superintendent, a Democrat by the way, smacks of yet another slap by Republicans at public school leaders in this state.

Charter advocates and those with the conventional schools do not need to be at war, and the best person to keep the peace is state Superintendent June Atkinson.

The original intent of charters was not to grow into a separate system. They were to be the birthplace of ideas, with some of those ideas perhaps moving into regular public schools.

That model still can work. But the crossover of ideas, the sharing of innovation, won’t work if state lawmakers indulge the resentment of some charter advocates directed at conventional public schools by setting up an entirely new, separate system of governance.

In time, that will divide and weaken public schools overall, doing no favor for students, and confusing parents with regard to choices. In the world of legislation, this one gets an “F.”

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