Charter schools in NC less diverse than traditional schools, report shows

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

A report showing the student population at state charter schools is wealthier and whiter than student bodies at traditional public schools was pulled Wednesday from the State Board of Education’s consideration.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest argued that the report, intended for the legislature and full of data on charter school enrollment, demographics and costs, was too negative.

“The report, to me, did not have a lot of positive things to say,” he said.

Forest did not detail his concerns with the report, but he said the state’s charter school advisory board should have a chance to review it. The State Board of Education was scheduled to vote Thursday on the report, which is required annually by the legislature and has a Jan. 15 deadline.

The state Department of Public Instruction writes the report, and the board approves it.

Forest told members not to worry about the deadline and said he would “run cover” with legislators if necessary.

Once the board issues reports, Forest said, “that is the fuel the media uses for the next year to criticize whatever we’re doing.”

The report, to me, did not have a lot of positive things to say.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey agreed to pulling the report.

More than 57 percent of students attending charter schools in the current school year are white, compared with traditional public schools’ 49.5 percent, the report said.

The proportion of African-American students is about the same across both types of schools. A little more than 8 percent of charter students are Hispanic, while enrollment at traditional schools is more than 16 percent Hispanic.

The report also references an April 2015 study by Helen Ladd, Charles Clotfelter and John Holbein of Duke University that showed little integration within individual charter schools. Student populations at individual charters, their study found, are predominantly white or predominantly minority.

The state board sends a report on charters to the legislature each year, but this one comes as charter school enrollments are accelerating while growth of traditional public schools stagnates.

Charter enrollment increased quickly after the state lifted the 100-school cap in 2011. About 41,200 students were enrolled in charters then. Last fall, nearly 82,000 students enrolled in one of 158 schools, according to the report. Overall, traditional public schools were expected to add about 3,700 students this year.

Charter schools have a smaller proportion of low-income students, the report says. At charters last year, 36 percent of students were economically disadvantaged, compared with nearly 55 percent at traditional schools.

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom, a group that supports charters, said it is unreasonable to compare the demographics at fewer than 200 charters to more than 2,200 traditional schools. “That is not a true apples-to-apples comparison,” he said.

After the state lifted the limit of 100 charters, more opened in low-wealth counties, he said. In the past few years, white student enrollment in charters has increased 21 percent, and black student enrollment is up 20 percent, Allison said.

Charter schools receive public money but operate free of some of the laws and regulations that govern traditional public schools. Charters do not have to adhere to the state teacher pay scale and may extend the school year, for example. They are not required to offer student transportation or provide lunch to poor students. Many charters enroll students from more than one county.

Since 2011, the legislature has moved to speed charter growth by making it easier for individual schools to significantly increase their enrollments and for successful schools to replicate.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner

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