New report praises NC charter schools, marking a shift from previous years

Two years after state education officials were accused of being too negative about charter schools, a new report praises North Carolina’s fast-growing charter schools and warns of “inequity” in their funding.

The state Office of Charter Schools says it’s “pleased to report” that charter schools are becoming more racially diverse and are enrolling more economically disadvantaged students. The gains, a 0.8 percentage point increase in Hispanic students and a 1 percentage point increase in the number of low-income students, come after criticism from some groups about how charter schools aren’t as diverse as traditional public schools.

The report also points to improvements in the academic performance of charter schools, adding that the Office of Charter Schools “is confident that the strength of the charter sector will continue to grow.”

“I am pleased with the many great things that our charter schools are doing across the state, the positive trends our schools are making,” David Machado, director of the Office of Charter Schools, said in his presentation of the report Thursday to the State Board of Education. “I acknowledge that we still have a lot of work to do and it’s an ongoing process.”

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are exempt from some rules that traditional public schools must follow, such as offering transportation and school meals and following the state’s school calendar law.

The number of charter schools has risen to 173 after state lawmakers in 2011 lifted the cap that limited the number to 100. For the first time this school year, charter school enrollment exceeded 100,000 students. Traditional public schools still enroll vastly more students at 1.4 million, but their enrollment has been declining while charter schools have seen a rise.

It’s good news that charter schools are trending in the right direction, said Yevonne Brannon of Public Schools First NC, a group that in the past has been critical about the expansion of charter schools. But Brannon said what the state should do 20 years after the first charter school opened is to give the same flexibility to traditional public schools.

“As long as we’re going to have two different sets of rules, we’re always going to have complaints from one side about funding and the other about governance and flexibility,” Brannon said.

Past state reports on charter schools have been controversial.

In 2016, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and charter school groups sharply criticized the state report as painting a misleading narrative that charter schools are only for the affluent. The criticism led to changes such as rewording of the reports and providing more information on accomplishments at charter schools.

This year’s report still notes how charter schools have more white students, fewer Hispanic students and fewer economically disadvantaged students than traditional public schools. But the authors said the gaps decreased this past school year.

“You can see that the diversity of our charter schools is trending in the right direction,” Machado said.

White students make up 55.8 percent of the enrollment at charter schools across the state, compared with 48.6 percent at traditional public schools. Hispanic students make up 9.2 percent of the enrollment at charter schools and 17.3 percent of the enrollment at traditional public schools. Economically disadvantaged students make up 30.6 percent of the enrollment at charters and 50.4 percent at traditional public schools.

The report also says it’s providing “more in-depth reporting on academic performance than in past years,” including how the number of charter schools receiving D and F marks on the state’s A-F school performance grading system has dropped over the past four years.

The last school year continued the trend in which charter schools have both a higher percentage of schools with A+, A and B grades and schools with D and F grades than traditional public schools. But the report adds that “charter schools appear to be strengthening overall in performance” because more schools are getting the top marks and fewer schools are getting the lower grades.

The report notes that preliminary data indicate some charter school subgroups might be outperforming their traditional school peers on some state performance measures. The authors suggest doing more analysis to see if the differences are statistically significant.

The report includes advice for state policymakers, saying that some funding doesn’t get transferred when students go to charter schools outside the county where they live. It also cites the lack of state funding for facilities for charter schools and how charters aren’t eligible to receive money from the state lottery.

“There is much to be said for inequity in charter school funding,” the report says.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui