Point of View

The hijacking of charter schools

April 27, 2013 

As a longtime supporter of charter schools, I am distressed to watch Republican legislators attempting to hijack this once-promising notion for school improvement and transform it into a force for undermining public education in North Carolina.

Charter schools are publically funded schools that are given flexibility in areas such as curriculum, hiring and scheduling in return for being accountable for positive educational results. There are now 5,600 charter schools in the U.S. and 107 in North Carolina. I helped establish a charter school in Durham in 2002 and continue to serve on its board.

The promise of charter schools was many-faceted. Charters are free to innovate and to explore new curricula and teaching methods that, if successful, could make their way into traditional public schools. Since one size does not fit all when it comes to schooling, charters offer parents and students a wider range of educational options. Charter schools at their best give teachers space to work in collegial fashion around innovative educational visions.

From the time charter schools first emerged in Minnesota in the early 1990s with broad bipartisan support, proponents recognized that they are integral parts of established public school systems. In North Carolina, where charters date to 1996, this means that charters are part of our constitutionally mandated “general and uniform system of free public schools.”

Significantly, proponents have long recognized that charter schools can best fulfill their promise of enhanced quality and choice when they remain on the edges of the system. The number of educational visionaries is limited. Making charters the norm would require a cumbersome bureaucracy that would eventually stifle the educational creativity for which they were established. Students whose experience in a charter school does not work out well need access to a traditional public school.

Republican leaders in the legislature are pushing a charter school “reform” program that would undermine all of the fundamental principles that have driven the charter school movement in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Senate Bill 337 and a parallel bill in the House would strip the State Board of Education of its responsibility for overseeing charter schools and set up an 11-member governing board mostly of charter school advocates appointed by the governor and the legislature.

Such a dual system would make a mockery of the notion that charters are part of a coherent statewide education system with an obligation to serve all students. Freeing charters from any obligation to pursue goals established by the State Board of Education would inevitably lead to two classes of schools: some free to avoid enrolling students who are most challenging to teach, others required to serve all comers. A charter board would also become a new bureaucracy – exactly what charter supporters feared.

Since the board would not be bound by conflict of interest laws, members would include profit-making charter school operators who would then be in a position to shape policies favoring their own private economic interests, including the blocking of applications from potential competitors.

The legislation would allow charters to hire fewer teachers with professional credentials – scoffing at the concept of teacher professionalism that has been a point of pride among successful charter schools. It would further jeopardize the status of teachers who, thanks to the Republican legislature, are already staring at the loss of tenure, shorter contracts and fewer teaching assistants.

The Republican agenda thumbs its nose at the implicit bargain of the charter movement – flexibility in return for accountability – by eliminating the second half of the equation.

Charter schools have long fought against critics who, often with justification, accuse them of becoming, in effect, “private schools with public funding.” Far from seeing this critique as a problem, the Republican legislative agenda would make it into a virtue.

The pending charter school legislation does not reflect any clamor from North Carolina residents. To the contrary, Republican leaders have essentially downloaded model legislation formulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing corporate group that mounted a multi-prong attack on public education throughout the country.

The timing could not be worse. Republican efforts to set charters and traditional public schools against each other fly in the face of a national movement that has developed in about 20 cities to create mutually beneficial “compacts.” Charters typically accept responsibility to educate the full range of students, while local school boards, acknowledging the autonomy of charter schools, agree to cooperate on issues such as professional development, school safety, transportation and school lunch programs.

Talks are actively underway in Durham between the public school system and local charters to work toward such a compact.

All North Carolinians who believe in the importance of quality public education for all children should resist the Republican proposals. At the front of the barricades should be advocates who still believe in the promise of charter schools and do not want to see a good idea hijacked.

Edward B. Fisk, a former education editor of the New York Times and author of the Fiske Guide to Colleges, lives in Durham.

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