The issue of competition from charter schools hung over the Wake County school board’s recent two-day retreat.
In the past three years, Wake's charter-school enrollment has increased 54 percent to reach 9,577 students this school year. During the Saturday and Monday meetings, board members discussed the impact of competing with charter schools while also accusing charter schools of resegregating schools.
Charters came up in the course of talking about the limits of using student assignment to promote diversity and what kinds of programming the district can use to compete for students. Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow.
Charters, along with home schools and private schools, reduced the school system’s percentage of the county’s students – aka market share – to 81.1 percent last school year. With 157,180 students, Wake is the largest school system in North Carolina.
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On Saturday, school board member Susan Evans talked about how offering small, innovative schools could help the district compete with charter schools.
“The other thing that we’ve got to continue to think smart about is how we maintain our market share and how we remain attractive to those families who can make other choices to go to private schools and charter schools,” Evans said.
“The additional competitive nature in our market of charter schools and other alternatives does create somewhat of a political hot potato to go back to practices that may have been in place in the mid-’80s of just moving people to a more diverse environment,” school board member Bill Fletcher said Monday.
All the talk about competition with charter schools raised concerns from school board member Jim Martin on Monday.
“In our discussion, it frequently comes up we’re trying to compare about competition with charters,” Martin said. “I think we need to be really cautious about that comparison.
If we look at a lot of the choice of charters, it has been a choice to resegregate. We don’t want to be involved in that competition.”
Martin was talking about how charter schools in Wake County tend to have either much higher percentages of white students or higher percentage of black students than the district. Not many charters mirror the school district’s demographics.
Martin said the district has already got enough magnet schools and innovative programming that he wanted to talk more about what they can do for most of the schools as opposed to having more one-off schools.
School board member Christine Kushner followed up Martin’s remarks by talking about how magnet schools help Wake provide choice in an “ethical way,” unlike charter schools. Like Martin, Kushner has had children attend the magnet program.
“That is where the strength of the magnet program – which is nested in those overall values of reducing high concentrations of poverty and having diverse schools – in a system is so key, and to me the ethical way of having choice,” Kushner said. “Unlike charters, which are indeed one-offs, because each one is capped.”
“If we have as a school SYSTEM (Kushner’s emphasis) different choices of schools and that we intentionally enroll them in ways that we control for our priorities, I think that is how we do allow choice, which is what parents are demanding but also the 70 percent of folks who don’t have school-age children need to have a sound system of schools to improve our economy and our community.”
School board Chairman Tom Benton said his colleagues were confusing the idea of different with better. He said that offering innovative programs doesn’t mean they’re saying that those schools are better than other schools.
During on the discussion about the role of providing more small/innovative schools, Superintendent Jim Merrill said they should keep the idea of smaller schools on the table because “some of our competitors market themselves on the basis of being small.”
Keeping up on that theme, Benton went on to echo Martin’s criticism of charter schools while also saying offering smaller schools could help the district keep more students.
“It does give us a leg up on competing for the good things that are in charter schools,” Benton said of the concept of smaller schools. “You are right. Some of the charter schools, it’s become just another way to segregate our students. I have no interest in competing with them.
“I do have an interest in competing with some of the charter schools who have sound educational programs and are stealing some of our students so that we can offer them the same types of opportunities or at least meet the perception of our parents that we can meet those.”
Benton brought up how nearly one out of five students is opting out of the district. But Martin said that wasn’t as big of a worry.
“When we talk about worrying about loss to charters and the competition with charters, from a business perspective that’s expanding your markets,” Martin said. “What our strategic plan says is let’s take care of our current market share and make sure it’s good.
“My hypothesis is that if we do a bang-up job with our current market share, we’re not going to even be worried about loss to charters and we’re going to start seeing them come back in.”
Martin said that the district should focus on taking care of its current market share and that “I don’t think trying to increasing our market share right now is a need.”
Benton responded that the market share is down to 81 percent.
Martin replied that it’s only down 1 percentage point. It fell from 82.5 percent in the 2013-14 school year to 81.1 percent in the 2014-15 school year.
Other North Carolina school systems are seeing an even bigger impact from charter schools. In Mecklenburg County, charter schools are projected to add 2,672 students next year. That’s well ahead of the 504 new students projected for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, which is second only to Wake in size in the state.