Proponents and skeptics debated the value of charter schools in North Carolina in a wide-ranging and sometimes contentious discussion Monday night.
A forum sponsored by The News & Observer and ABC11 explored the role of charter schools as part of the state’s education system. The event followed recent in-depth reporting on charters by The News & Observer.
Five panelists with extensive experience in charter schools and traditional public schools took the stage Monday night. They were: Natalie Beyer, a member of the Durham school board; Lisa Gordon Stella, a Durham attorney and co-chair of the N.C. Association of Public Charter Schools; Pamela Blizzard, a founder of two charter schools – Research Triangle High School and Raleigh Charter High School; Helen Ladd, professor emerita of public policy and economics at Duke University; and Tawannah Allen, associate professor at High Point University’s education school.
North Carolina has 173 charter schools, and the sector has boomed since the legislature lifted the 100-school limit for charters in 2011. Last year, the state spent $513 million on 167 charter schools.
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Here are five points of contention at Monday’s discussion:
▪ Should charters be on the fringes or at the forefront? Ladd, who has conducted research on charter schools, said there are good reasons to limit them to the fringes of the system, so they can be easily monitored for quality even as they experiment with different education methods. “I am not in favor of competition in the education sector. The notion of competition does not translate well from the private sector,” she said, because education is compulsory for children.
Gordon Stella said she had come to “an uncomfortable truth” that the U.S. public education system is failing children, teachers, principals and taxpayers. She said the traditional system has a top-down approach and is too slow to change with the information age. “Charters are not the problem in education reform,” Gordon Stella said, adding, “Charters need to be at the forefront.”
▪ Should below-average schools be shut down? If charter schools are going to exist in the state, Beyer said, “how can we make them more accountable and more transparent, and that is what belongs with public funding in my mind.” Beyer said charters should be under the democratic oversight of local school boards, whose members are accountable to voters. She pointed to a slide showing a number of Durham charter schools scoring Ds and Fs on the state school rating system. She questioned why one F-rated charter in Durham has been open since 1997.
Gordon Stella countered that any failing school should be shut down. “Let’s start closing traditional public schools that are Ds and Fs,” she said. “There are 500 schools in our state that are traditional schools that are Ds and Fs.”
Ladd noted that in both systems, schools with large populations of low-income children tend to receive Ds and Fs.
▪ Local control vs. system-wide collaboration. Several panelists pointed out that the flexibility of charters can help children. Blizzard said at her school, Research Triangle High, the staff went into “a full court press” to improve math scores that she said started out appallingly low. “Structurally we have the flexibility and we have the site-based control, and we have the ability to hire within our building exactly who we want to hire, so that we can focus on whatever it is we choose to focus on.”
But flexibility can’t solve all problems, Ladd said. Other countries have tried it and it didn’t work. “It may work in a few cases,” she said. “You can have a fantastic leader who can work lots and lots of hours. We need a system that will work. So I come back to my word – system – that will work for everyone, that will take advantage of economies of scale and transportation and collaborative efforts across schools.”
▪ Serving different students. School districts end up with the most expensive-to-educate children – those with special needs or limited English proficiency, Beyer said. “We need to be honest and acknowledge that charter schools are not serving the same students that traditional schools are,” she said.
Information from the federal Title I program shows that 33 percent of students enrolled in charters in the 2016-2017 school year were low-income, compared to 53 percent in traditional public schools.
Allen pointed out that the state sets out the parameters for how children are admitted to charter schools. “As far as whether or not we’re able to cream or select the students, that’s not the case for us,” said Allen, who is on the board of the charter Global Scholars Academy in Durham, which has a high population of students from low-income families. “Our lottery selection is such that we do have to accept any and everyone that applies that meets the criteria.” The problem, she said, is that at many schools there is an assumption that children in poverty cannot be successful. Charters, she said, can be creative in engaging them.
▪ The politics of charter schools. Gordon Stella said it was time to dispel the myth that charter schools were an invention of conservatives. They are the province of progressives dedicated to public education, she said. “Charter schools are not instruments of the right intended to privatize public education,” she said.
Beyer disagreed. The State Board of Education is made up of political appointees, she said, and the state’s charter school advisory board is stacked with charter school advocates. “This is part of a larger, national initiative to privatize education,” she said. “It’s in the line of vouchers, it’s in the line of education savings accounts that now exist across North Carolina where we’re giving money to parents on a debit card. It’s a way for people to make money on North Carolina students.”