Charter school transportation may be worth considering, NC Senate leader Berger says

Teacher's aide Elizabeth Young, left, asks a question of her students during an English lesson at the Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham in December 2016. Maureen Joy Charter School is a K-8 public charter school and is tuition free and open to the public.
Teacher's aide Elizabeth Young, left, asks a question of her students during an English lesson at the Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham in December 2016. Maureen Joy Charter School is a K-8 public charter school and is tuition free and open to the public.

Greater support for charter school transportation is “something we may need to look at,” Senate leader Phil Berger said Tuesday.

Charter schools are not required to offer student transportation. Although some charter schools do operate buses, it is optional for them.

The state does not pay for charter schools’ bus purchases. Lack of transportation is often cited as one of the factors that has resulted in a relative lack of diversity at charters.

The News & Observer published a series of articles on charter schools this month. Last year, The N&O found, 30 percent of North Carolina charters were 80 percent or more white and 27 percent were less than 20 percent white. For traditional public schools, 14 percent were 80 percent or more white, and 19 percent were less than 20 percent white.

Some states require transportation for charter school students: either the schools themselves provide it, or school districts provide transportation for charter students attending schools within district boundaries.

“I think the entire landscape, whether it’s state allocations or local allocation, I think both those ought to be looked at,” said Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County.

The legislature paid some attention to charter transportation this year. Charters where half the students are low-income can apply to have 65 percent of their transportation costs reimbursed. Leaders of charters with high percentages of low-income students said help with busing cost would allow them to spend more on instruction. The flip side of that idea, which would have offered charters with fewer low-income students an incentive to provide transportation by reimbursing 25 percent of their costs, was proposed but did not get a hearing.

“We could not get support to push that part through,” said Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a Democrat from Northampton County. Smith-Ingram is a member of the Legislative Black Caucus who supports school choice, including charters and vouchers.

“We need to promote greater inclusion in our charter schools,” said Smith-Ingram, which includes giving children with disabilities greater access to charters. The challenge is coming up with a plan to do it.

“There is a fear that the public charters are siphoning off the funding from traditional public schools,” she said. “We need to have more courageous conversations.”

Rep. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican, said he’s thought about ways to expand transportation for charter school students. School districts would likely resist a move to have them pick up charter school students, said Horn, a House Education Committee chairman.

“The animus that exists, sadly, between charter and public schools is so strong,” he said.

In its series, The N&O detailed the impact of charter-school growth in Durham County, where more students are signing up for charters than are entering district schools.

Since 2012, Durham’s charter enrollment has grown by 3,100 students; Durham Public Schools added only 1,200 students in the same period. In the past two years, the school district’s enrollment has fallen.

Berger said charters have saved “a substantial amount of money in Durham” because the county would have had to build four K-8 schools to accommodate the 3,100 students if they had enrolled in the district schools.

“Charters have not only provided an opportunity for parents to exercise some decision making with reference to their kids’ education, but it’s also provided some relief to local taxpayers in the form of savings on school construction,” Berger said.

Durham Board of Education Chairman Mike Lee said Berger’s calculations are wrong. The district could have added the 3,100 students without having to build new schools, he said, and could have used the money from its budget that goes to charter schools.

At more than half the charters in Durham, student achievement is at or below that in traditional public schools, Lee said. Promoting charter schools “is part of the larger narrative the GOP has for public education,” he said. “It’s a false narrative. They want people to believe charter schools are the answer to public schools. That’s not the case.”

A group of researchers in 2015 found that, statewide, charter schools’ performance was similar to that of traditional public schools. The N&O also reported that in recent years, students in the two systems showed similar levels of improvement. And an N&O analysis of end-of-grade test scores for 3rd to 8th graders in 2016-17 in reading and math shows younger low-income charter students performed as well as students from low-income families in traditional schools. But among low-income students in middle-school grades, charter students showed higher proficiency rates.

Rep. Cecil Brockman, a Democratic charter school supporter from Guilford County, said student academic achievement needs to be considered along with diversity. He backed the measure helping charters with higher percentages of low-income students pay transportation costs.

The focus should be firmly on academic achievement for African-American students, said Brockman, and the 54 percent who attend charters and more than 60 percent who attend traditional public schools who are considered to be failing.

“At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of the parents to choose what environment they would like their kid to be in,” he said.

Before 2013, the charter law mandated that the schools after their first year reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the school district where they’re located. The language was diluted in 2013. Brockman said they should restore the requirement.

“It would accomplish the goal for diversity and make sure charters are serving the community they were meant to serve,” he said. “If charters don’t look like the community, I think for me that’s a problem. If they look like the community, the critics of charter schools will have less of an issue with charter schools.”

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner

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