Roughly 20 years ago, charter schools were approved by the North Carolina General Assembly with the primary goal stated as improving student learning. The idea wasn’t bad: Charters would be publicly funded, but could operate without the rules uniformly applied to public schools. They could vary curricula, have different hours, try things that understandably couldn’t be tried in public schools because they had the most students and had to have order in their courses, teachers’ qualifications and structure.
And, if charters worked as they were envisioned, perhaps they’d find innovative ways to approach some courses, or to help students with learning challenges succeed, and their methods could be incorporated into conventional public schools. Charters as laboratories, in other words.
So as charters enter that third decade, The News & Observer’s Jane Stancill, Lynn Bonner and David Raynor have looked at how they’re doing and what the future for them might be. Some of their conclusions, seen in a series that begins today and continues through the week:
▪ The early vision has expanded haphazardly. Charters work best if they remain laboratories – not, as some seem to believe, schools driven by a wish on the part of parents and founders to be independent of public education, though funded by the public. Or driven by the political views of those who support them.
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▪ There have been some diversions from the original intent in the legislature’s endorsement. Charters 20 years ago were supposed to be racially and economically diverse. They’re not. Most are largely white or largely minority. And overall charters tend to be whiter and more affluent. In the regular public schools, more than half of students are from low-income families. In charters, it’s one in three.
▪ The N&O series reports, because of sparse populations and lower incomes (charters aren’t required to provide transportation or meals), rural areas of the state have few charter options.
▪ The growth of charters encouraged by the Republicans in the General Assembly also has gotten the charters away from their home-grown, parent-driven beginnings. Now, for-profit companies headquartered elsewhere are getting millions in state funding for their charters. And those schools don’t perform any better overall than regular public schools.
▪ It can’t yet be said that the “charter movement” as it’s come to be called is going to result in the creation in North Carolina of a second public school system that is less diverse and in effect a publicly funded private system. That, on top of endless expansion of the ridiculous voucher program wherein Republican lawmakers are giving millions of taxpayer dollars to families sending their kids to private schools, would be devastating for conventional public education.
▪ The schools’ student performance, as measured alongside all other schools, seems about average.
The advocacy of charters in North Carolina may not be exclusively the passion of conservatives, but there does seem to be more support for expanding the number of charters, certainly, among Republicans. The General Assembly now controlled by the GOP lifted the 100-school cap on charters when Republicans took over in 2011, and with 20 more such schools slated to open next year, that original number will nearly double.
But charters have not been shown to be the cure-all for the problems in public education.
“Can we say that charter schools on average are more effective than traditional public schools? Our answer was no,” said Helen Ladd, an economist and the lead author on Duke University research on charters. “They are on average no better or worse, even though they’ve gotten better over time. They’re still no better, so there’s no good reason to throw all this money to charter schools.”
Yes, some charters have worked well for lower-income students, and some have done creative things when it comes to training students in life skills, and others have been positively outstanding, owing to strong parental involvement and other factors. There’s nothing wrong with charters as part of the education system. But for-profit charters, perhaps driven by the political philosophy of donors or the socioeconomic theories of supporters? Probably not a good idea.
The state doesn’t need to push ahead full speed with more charters and solicit more money from outside private donors who seem to have their own agendas for public education. It needs, rather, to take a pause, and engage in a more detailed examination of the whys and wherefores of successes and failures and the effect of charters on conventional schools.
The next N&O Community Voices forum will focus on charter schools at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 30 at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. Register at www.eventbrite.com