If you want people to notice a data report, try having a public official object to it.
That’s one lesson from last week’s decision by the N.C. Board of Education to send a charter school report back for revisions after Lt. Gov. Dan Forest complained that it wasn’t positive enough.
“It was certainly not intended to be an advocacy position nor a critique,” Adam Levinson, interim director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, told the state’s Charter School Advisory Board on Tuesday.
He said this year’s annual report, which is mandated by the state legislature, has probably gotten more readers than the last five or 10 combined because of the controversy.
“You may want to keep your copy. It may be worth something on eBay,” Levinson quipped to the advisory panel.
He and other state officials stood by the numbers. But Levinson said he’ll look for ways to highlight successes by the independently-run charter schools, such as adding a list of awards and accolades they’ve won.
The big question is how well the schools meet their mission of offering better public alternatives for North Carolina’s students. Charters have expanded rapidly, especially in the Charlotte area, since the state lifted a 100-school limit in 2011. This year the state has budgeted $394 million for 158 schools.
Charter schools report to independent nonprofit boards approved by the state, rather than to elected school boards. There are about 10,300 students in Wake County charter schools.
The annual report compares statewide numbers for charter and district schools on factors such as academic performance, demographics, poverty and students with disabilities.
Forest didn’t voice specific concerns at last week’s Board of Education meeting, but in a follow-up letter to The (Raleigh) News & Observer he said he thought the report should have said more about the difficulties of tallying student poverty, presented the race data differently and told more “positive stories” about charter schools.
“For three years I have sat on the State Board of Education, and I cannot remember a single time the Department of Public Instruction has said something positive about our public charter schools,” he wrote.
Schools across the country traditionally gauge poverty by the percent of students who qualify for federal lunch subsidies based on family income. The accuracy of that approach has long been debated, and recent changes in the lunch program have made it harder to get consistent tallies for public schools.
Forest and others note that some charter schools don’t participate in the federal lunch program and thus may have artificially low poverty counts. At Tuesday’s advisory board meeting a spokesman for state Superintendent June Atkinson said the state expects charter schools to ask parents about income levels even if they don’t fill out lunch applications.
“No data are 100 percent accurate, but we do try to get accurate data,” said Mike McLaughlin, Atkinson’s representative on the advisory board.
Several advisory board members, who are charter school board members or staff, suggested ways to highlight accomplishments. Cheryl Turner, director of Charlotte’s Sugar Creek Charter School, pointed out that the report compares school letter grades by saying “charter schools had higher percentages than traditional public schools of both D and F ratings and A/A+ and B ratings.” She suggested flipping the sentence to lead with the higher grades.
Levinson said his staff was trying to meet a Jan. 15 deadline to have the report ready for the General Assembly, but said he’s glad to have an additional month to review, discuss and “do more scrubbing” of the numbers.
Advisory board member Joseph Maimone said Levinson may not have intended a biased report, but “we have a media out there that is not unbiased.” He cited an article that ran in The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer that highlighted data from the report indicating charters are less diverse than district schools.
“We have to be sensitive to the media bias against charter schools,” Maimone said.
Levinson will bring a revised report to the Board of Education in February.