In an attempt to receive more public funding for privately managed, sometimes for-profit charters, charter advocates ignore important differences between charters and traditional North Carolina public schools.
Charters have strayed far from the intent of the original legislation that they function as “lab” type schools focused on finding better ways to educate struggling students and to share those practices with traditional public schools so that the system as a whole would improve. Especially since the cap was taken off the number of charters allowed, charters have developed into 147 independent mini-districts competing with traditional public schools and one another for market share.
And they don’t compete on a level playing field: While traditional public schools must provide a comprehensive array of curriculum, extracurricular activities and special services to meet the needs of a variety of students, charter schools can narrowly tailor their missions to homogeneous groups of students, place a cap on the number they serve, hire uncertified teachers on contract, not provide transportation and lunches (even though some do), dissuade high-cost special education students and ESL students and remain in good standing with the state.
In other words, charters can and do enroll lower-cost students and receive average-cost funds. This is why for-profit Education Management Organizations are so interested in opening more charters in North Carolina. Half of the next batch of charters approved by the Charter School Advisory Committee are run by for-profit chains.
In addition, before districts hand over money raised directly from federal grants won by a local school district or empty the fund balance (because it’s there and who needs a savings account?), charter advocates would be well-advised to get all charters’ financial houses in order. Then maybe we won’t have the kind of financial scandal we see in Kinston, where a charter shut down with $300,000 missing, or in Charlotte, where Entrepreneur High closed abruptly in January with only $14 in the bank. These kinds of disruptions rely on the traditional public school system to be there to take care of the kids and families left by the curb.
As we have seen from the loathed but mandated A-F grades used to label schools as good or bad, charters face the same challenges in breaking the link between poverty and achievement as traditional public schools. In Durham, seven of 10 charter schools were graded D or F. We also have recent research from Duke professor Helen Ladd that shows a trend toward increasing racial segregation in charters, as more majority white charters open.
Charters are becoming more segregated, devalue the teaching profession, make local district planning less efficient, attract for-profit companies, lack financial controls in some cases and, on average, don’t produce better outcomes than traditional public schools.
So, I have to ask, what value do they add? One could ask, even under the current funding system, are charters giving us our money’s worth?
Bryan Proffitt is an 11-year veteran of North Carolina’s public schools and the president-elect of the Durham Association of Educators.