Editorials

Unearned diplomas show need for better oversight of NC charter schools

State Board Chairman Bill Cobey, right, and State Superintendent June Atkinson talk during a meeting of the North Carolina State Board of Education meeting in February.
State Board Chairman Bill Cobey, right, and State Superintendent June Atkinson talk during a meeting of the North Carolina State Board of Education meeting in February. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Republicans who lead the General Assembly are tough on accountability when it comes to traditional public schools and public school teachers. They’ve pushed changes that put a letter grade on public schools and moved to end teacher tenure to make it easier to fire poor performing teachers.

But when it comes to the Republicans’ pet education issues – increasing the number of charter schools and expanding the use of vouchers for private schools – the accountability demands ease. The lack of oversight has now shown up in a Durham charter K-12 school that awarded 53 diplomas in the last two years to students who lacked the credits necessary to graduate. That’s nearly a third of the school’s graduates since 2014 and the problem could go back further.

The problem at the Kestrel Heights School was not detected by the state. It was found by a conscientious Kestrel Heights School principal who started work at the school this summer and discovered that recent graduates lacked sufficient credits. Apparently a former principal and guidance counselor both failed to properly check transcripts before approving diplomas. The failure was so widespread that the matter has been referred to the Durham County District Attorney’s Office to determine if a criminal investigation is warranted.

That Kestrel, a 1,016-student school that has been graduating students since 2008, could grant diplomas to so many unqualified students raises clear question about whether charter schools need closer oversight. But Bill Cobey, the Republican chairman of the State Board of Education, says no.

Cobey dismissed the need for a new system for checking graduation eligibility because it would be unnecessary. He said charter schools should simply be trusted to enforce graduation standards and requirements.

“My experience with educators is that they are people of very high character,” Cobey said. “Is it going to be perfect? No, obviously.

“I believe this is an isolated case,” he continued. “Are there other isolated cases? Maybe. But I have a very high-level (of) trust in the educators in this state.”

Cobey sounds like a man whistling past the diploma mill. If there are other “isolated cases,” they’re not isolated. They’re a symptom of overall weak oversight. The state board should do for all charter schools what the conscientious principal did at Kestrel. Review the transcripts of charter high school graduates and establish reporting procedures that would detect or prevent more Kestrel School situations.

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