McCrory vows to hold charter schools to high standards

ahelms@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 23, 2014 

  • Choice in Mecklenburg

    Here’s the most recent available breakdown of Mecklenburg County’s school-age children. CMS and charter numbers are for 2013-14 from CMS. Private and home-school numbers are from the N.C. Division of Nonpublic Education for 2012-13.

    • CMS: 144,140 (79.7 percent)

    • Private schools: 19,374 (10.7 percent)

    • Charter schools: 10,823 (6 percent)

    • Home-schooled: 6,573 (3.6 percent)

As North Carolina rapidly expands its charter school roster, Gov. Pat McCrory pledged Thursday to crack down on any that don’t meet quality standards.

“I’m telling you right now a lot of people are going to be looking at the charter school movement and what I want to do is show the best,” McCrory said at a school choice rally in Charlotte. “If any are falling behind and not meeting the standards we will take action, because I don’t want that to be a reflection of the choice movement.”

McCrory said such action could include revoking the charters that authorize independent boards to receive tax money for alternative public schools. Tougher state exams that debuted in 2013 could put many charter schools at risk after this year’s scores come in.

The importance of high standards was a theme sounded by several speakers, at a time when choice is flourishing in Charlotte and the state.

“We want to make sure we have quality options, not just options,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which hosted the local rally.

The event, part of a national tour sponsored by an array of advocacy and education groups, comes as North Carolina is expanding charters and launching publicly-funded scholarships to send low-income and disabled students to private schools. Representatives of area charters, private schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg magnets and home-schooling families gathered at the Carolinas Aviation Museum.

“It’s clear that this is an important time for North Carolina in the realm of school choice. We must be clear-eyed in setting goals and expectations,” McCrory said in an 11-minute speech.

After lawmakers lifted a longstanding cap on charters in 2010, the state authorized 23 new charters that opened this year and an additional 26 to open in August. The largest share of them are in the Charlotte area.

McCrory lauded Charlotte’s Sugar Creek Charter School, whose students spoke and sang at the rally, as an example of the quality he wants to see. He said eighth-graders at the eastside school are taking high school civics, economics and English classes.

“Is that not amazing?” he said to applause. “These are the standards we want.”

Cheryl Turner, who has led Sugar Creek for 14 years, said charters offer good options not only for families but for educators. Leading a charter has provided “the autonomy and empowerment” to meet the needs of low-income students who often struggle in traditional schools, she said. Sugar Creek is expanding to add ninth-graders next year.

Forced to close?

Despite the celebratory tone, McCrory repeatedly looped back to the theme of ensuring that toleration of weak charters doesn’t tarnish the expansion. He noted that he appoints some members of the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board and the state Board of Education, which oversee charters. He said he has told them to “take action, up to and including taking away their license” if schools fall short.

McCrory cited no examples. The state has occasionally revoked or declined to renew charters for schools with low pass rates on state exams. State law mandates closure for charters that have composite pass rates below 60 percent and fail to meet growth targets for two of three consecutive years.

That could be a problem, if last year’s performance on the new state exam is any indicator of 2014 results. Seventy-five of 108 charters that reported results for 2013 fell below 60 percent. But the state gave a one-year reprieve because the exams were new and results plunged across the state.

Traditional public schools across the state fared even worse, with 86 percent logging proficiency rates below 60 percent.

Eighteen charters that fell below 60 percent also failed to meet the state growth targets. Those included four in the Charlotte area: American Renaissance School in Statesville (38.7 percent overall proficiency), Carolina International School in Harrisburg (50.2 percent), Community Charter in Charlotte (17.8 percent) and Crossroads Charter High in Charlotte (less than 5 percent).

Beyond charters

McCrory and state Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, celebrated the chance for disabled and impoverished students to get scholarships of up to $4,800 a year to attend private schools, starting in 2014-15.

“Today I’m excited to see a Charlotte with more school choices than ever before,” said Bryan, a sponsor of the Opportunity Scholarship bill.

Linda Nelson, executive director of the N.C. Association of Independent Schools, said the 86 private schools in that group save taxpayers $340 million a year in public school funding. The opportunity scholarships will let those schools expand access, she said.

Kevin McClain, president of North Carolinians for Home Education, compared the traditional public school system to train travel – “a 200-year-old technology (that) did great things for America.”

“Most of us don’t take trains today,” McClain said, comparing the wider menu of options to air travel. “The freedom is like the sky.”

Allison, president of PEFNC, said he contacted Superintendent Heath Morrison to make sure CMS was included in the celebration of choice. Allison said he wanted to emphasize common ground, “even if we may not agree on everything.”

Morrison has criticized opportunity scholarships, which Allison’s group supports, as a poor use of public education money in tight times, especially because the state does not require private schools that receive public money to meet any standards. But he has voiced support for high-quailty options, including charter schools, and is expanding the roster of options within CMS.

Two CMS magnet principals, Curtis Carroll from Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology and Ynez Olshausen of Waddell, spoke at the rally. Olshausen talked about the advantage students get by selecting a school where they learn in two languages, with options that include Japanese, Chinese, German and French.

“Global is not the future,” she said. “Global is now.”

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms

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