In theory, North Carolina’s growing slate of charter schools offers all parents more educational choices for their children. In reality, far too many of these schools are out of reach for families of limited means. We at Self-Help are committed to financing high-performing public charter schools that offer a real choice for all eligible students, regardless of race or income.
A recent report by Duke University reveals a disturbing trend among N.C. charter schools. The Growing Segmentation of the Charter School Sector in North Carolina concludes that public charter schools in our state are “increasingly serving the interests of relatively able white students in racially imbalanced schools.” This trend is directly counter to state law that requires charter schools to place “special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who are identified as at risk of academic failure.”
The good news is that the current lopsided trend can be reversed with a few policy changes.
▪ To make charter schools a real choice for lower-income families, we need to make it physically possible for all students to attend. Unlike regular public schools, charters are not required to provide transportation for students. This poses a particular challenge for low-income families who may lack access to a car or have inflexible work schedules.
▪ Charters are not required to offer reduced-price or free lunches, even though many low-income parents depend on these to supplement their child’s nutrition needs. Only 30 percent of the 127 charters open in 2013-14 reported providing free/reduced lunch to students.
Just because most charter schools don’t provide transportation and lunch doesn’t mean they can’t. A number of Self-Help’s borrowers that are high-performing charters offer these services, including Henderson Collegiate (Vance), KIPP Gaston College Preparatory (Northampton), Maureen Joy (Durham) and Sugar Creek (Mecklenburg).
▪ The state’s charter school authorities should require prospective charter schools to demonstrate a clear commitment to providing high-quality education to students at-risk of academic failure regardless of race or income.
In N.C., there are three basic types of charter schools: those that partner with nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs), independent schools and those run by for-profit education management companies (EMOs). Their distinct records reflect clear differences in serving diverse racial and socio-economic student populations.
According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, in 2013-14 nonprofit CMO charter schools served 58 percent students of color while for-profit EMOs served 52 percent and independent schools served 44 percent. In the same year, 54 percent of students served by nonprofit CMOs were economically disadvantaged versus just over 30 percent for independent schools and for-profit EMOs. By comparison, district-run public schools statewide provided free and reduced-price lunch to 58 percent of students and served 49 percent students of color.
Recent actions suggest that the disparities cited in the Duke report will get worse, not better. Last month, the state’s Charter School Advisory Board recommended 18 new charter schools to open in 2016-17, with 50 percent of those run by EMOs. Many of these new schools – designed to expand school choice – in fact provide little choice for lower-income families.
North Carolina is at a crossroads on public charter schools. As the number of charter schools continues to grow, we must decide how to best manage growth while ensuring quality and fair access for low-income students and students of color. We owe it to all of our public school students and to the taxpayers who support them.
Jane Ellis is director of Charter School Lending for Self-Help Credit Union in Durham.