Expansion of charter schools should be conservative

January 7, 2014 

Back in 1996, when the N.C. General Assembly authorized the creation of charter schools, the idea was that the number would be limited to 100 and that the charters would be part of the public system. They would be laboratories of sorts, not bound by some of the conventional rules of curricula and required programs.

Charters would be able to experiment with teaching methods. And if those methods worked, if students were shown to learn better in a different sort of environment, then the charter successes could be models for regular public schools.

But along the way, discussions about charter schools evolved from educational to political. And it was rough going for some of those first 100 charter schools: Some were racially imbalanced. Some didn’t deliver successful teaching. Some ... well, some just didn’t get the job done.

In 2011, lawmakers nonetheless voted to lift the 100-charters cap, leading to 127 charter schools now. With the state preparing this week to expand the number even more, it’s important that the agencies tasked with approving schools be cautious.

On Thursday, the State Board of Education will vote on whether to give final approval to 26 charters that want to open this fall. Next week, the state Office of Charter Schools will decide which of 71 charters that have applied to open in 2015 will move forward in the process.

A mutated model

The concept that drove Democrats who ran the legislature in 1996 to approve the creation of charter schools has evolved, some would say mutated, under Republicans.

Given how Republicans have made sport of attacking public education and teachers and how conservatives have been the strongest backers of virtually unlimited charter expansion, it’s clear some want charters to become some sort of publicly funded private system.

Leaders of some school systems, Durham being the most prominent, say their budgets are shrinking as per-pupil funding follows the growing number of students who attend charter schools. Opponents of expansion indeed say that charters divert too much money from the traditional schools the vast majority of North Carolinians use to educate their children.

It’s simply suspicious that charters are so popular now with hard-core conservative ideologues, who have little interest in economic and racial diversity in schools. They were among those who pushed to create a board separate from the State Board of Education to govern charters – something that would have created two systems for public schools.

Approval too easy

Given the politicization of charters, the state board and the charter board shouldn’t view approval of new charters as a mere formality. They should carefully examine specific plans, details of curricula and standards for faculty and demand clear and convincing new themes.

Those schools can’t be created simply because some disgruntled parents don’t like their current schools. Charters should demonstrate not just that they will be different, but that they will be better for some children. Absent that, they should not be approved.

Republicans have made it easy, too easy, for more charters to be established, as if they were melting wax onto sled blades to speed the trip down the neighborhood hill. If too many charters go down that hill too quickly and fail, it will be difficult indeed to get back to the top and start over.

These boards also should remember, first and always, that though charters have a measure of independence, they are still funded by taxpayers. They are public schools, not private schools within the public system. They are free of some rules, but not all. Their students must meet testing standards.

New charters need to adhere to the original idea:They should experiment with teaching methods and curricula with the idea that they ultimately may make larger contributions that can be used by all public schools.

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