North Carolina is at a crossroads on public charter schools. As the number of charters increases, we must decide how to best manage growth, ensure quality and fair access, and address the counterproductive tension between public charters and district-run schools. We owe it to all our public school students and to the taxpayers who support them.
Public charters, legal in North Carolina since 1996 but limited by a 100-school cap not removed until 2011, are part of our public school system. They provide space for public schools to experiment and an alternative for families with children struggling in their district-run school.
But charter growth must not be willy-nilly.
The recent report “North Carolina Charter Schools: Excellence and Equity through Collaboration” suggests how to improve quality, access and collaboration. Findings include:
• The education community should focus on public charter and district-run public schools working together to define and establish clear performance standards that empower all students to succeed and engage students whose needs are not being met.
• Public charter and district schools need regular and open communication. State leaders and funders should support district-charter collaborative efforts.
• Too many public charter schools don’t provide transportation or free/reduced lunch programs. Too many traditional schools are districted unevenly. Both reduce fair access and sufficient socioeconomic and racial diversity.
• Authorizers have greatly improved the approval process. Continuing these efforts will strengthen the caliber of public charter schools. North Carolina should more closely align with nationally accepted public charter school quality standards, as most other states have done.
Imagine the possibilities if we can turn the mistrust and tension between schools into productive collaborations. Sharing facility and transportation resources could help public charters while providing school districts revenue. Collaborations could refine oversight and funding systems so that they are more efficient for all schools. Coordination between public charters and district-run schools could help struggling students find the best school to meet their needs. Joint professional development could accelerate the dissemination of innovative best practices.
Nationally, more than 20 public school districts have entered into compacts with charters that allow the schools to share professional development, set performance metrics for struggling schools, share school buildings, create common enrollment systems and count public charter school performance in district-wide averages.
Certainly all public schools should pursue racial and socioeconomic diversity aggressively. Funders and authorizers should recognize and reward schools that achieve diversity. Strategies like weighted lotteries and common enrollment applications would help equalize opportunity for all families to have a chance at diverse, in-demand schools.
Like all public schools, public charter schools are accountable to all of us. When well-managed and accountable, they can, in concert with district-run public schools, help our state reach the day when all students have access to a high-quality public education. Working together, public charters and district-run schools can better ensure that all public school children succeed.
Jane Ellis is director of Charter School Lending for the Self-Help Credit Union in Durham.