Charter schools need to be true to mission

September 12, 2013 

With her apparently warm embrace of the 170 letters of intent from groups wanting to form new charter schools, June Atkinson is facing political reality gracefully. Along with mainstream public schools, the state superintendent of Public Instruction is charged with a role in overseeing charters, which many local and state public education officials have been cautious of since the General Assembly authorized them in 1996.

Some parents apparently think charters are like having private schools within the public system because they are free from many rules, such as prescribed teaching methods, that govern regular schools, and they don’t have to answer to local districts. But when charter schools were authorized, the idea was that a limited number could experiment with approaches to teaching and organization in ways that might transfer to regular public schools – making charters “laboratories” of sorts.

There’s nothing wrong with that. To be sure, there are some very good charter schools in North Carolina.

But with those 170 letters will come a lot of pressure on state officials and those with a role in supervising charters to approve new charters for 2015, after a lift on the 100-charter cap. Among those sending in letters were representatives of 39 proposed charters in the Triangle and 43 in Mecklenburg County. That seems like a lot of new schools – and a lot of public money taken out of traditional schools – for those regions.

State officials must be discriminating in approving charters, especially given that Republican lawmakers seem to approach the issue as if all comers should be automatically approved. Some even advocated a separate governing body for charter schools, as if they were state-sponsored private schools.

They are not.

While the history of charters includes some success stories, it also includes problematic examples of racially imbalanced schools and other schools not living up to academic standards.

That history, and common sense, dictate that increasing the number of charter schools needs to be a slow and thoughtful process. Are those involved with forming the school sure of vision? Do they have the mission of their proposed charter (the arts, sciences, special needs) clearly defined and goals set? Is the path to success for students clearly mapped out? Will students who complete an elementary or secondary charter experience be prepared for higher education at mainstream public universities?

“We welcome the growth of high-quality charter schools in North Carolina as they offer a valuable option to help meet the academic needs of our 1.5 million public school students, “ Atkinson said Monday. “Our public charter schools have helped to increase our graduation rate to the highest in state history, and we look forward to working with these applicants as they formalize their plans to open new schools in 2015.”

The superintendent is being diplomatic. There doesn’t need to be a land rush to establish all these schools at once, and she is well aware of that.

Charter advocates would do well to recognize the wisdom of moving slowly as well. If too many new charters are established too quickly and too many fail, it will hurt the ambitions of future applicants. Charters can be a valuable part of public education. But they are only a part, and they are public.

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