Charter school's woes point to need for more oversight

The problems at the Kestrel Heights charter school in southeast Durham, near Research Triangle Park, are not an indictment of the charter school movement in North Carolina. But the problems, most notably that 40 percent of the school’s graduates in the last eight years did not meet state graduation requirements — do show a need for close oversight of charters, and not just by charter school advocates, but by state public education officials.

Indeed, a state advisory board for charters has recommended that the school shut down its high school this summer. Clearly, the board, which includes charter advocates, understands that this issue reflects poorly on charters.

Charters were authorized more than 20 years ago, not to create an alternative system to conventional public schools, but as “laboratories,” where schools, funded by the public, could nevertheless operate a little outside the rules. They’re not required to have lunch and breakfast or to provide transportation, and can hire teachers without conventional certification. They’re also allowed to expand the school year and offer courses outside normal curricula.

The thinking in allowing charters to form was to let them experiment with different courses and teaching methods and, if their experiments worked, to see if their innovations could be adapted to conventional public schools. There is not and never was anything wrong with that idea, but the cap on charters, set at 100, was a good idea to have a period of time when the state could evaluate how charters were doing, particularly in terms of student performance.

The cap has been lifted, which is a risky idea.

And Kestrel is an example of the need for closer supervision. The students from the school — which says it has addressed problems — are in a pickle now, with diplomas that don’t reflect state graduation requirements or required courses. School supporters note that the problems were mistakes, and that measures have been taken to more closely monitor verification that students have taken all the courses they’re supposed to take.

The lesson here isn’t about the needs in or shortcomings of one school. Rather, it’s evidence that though some charter advocates would like to break away from the system that governs traditional public education, it would be a good idea to take another look at governance and make oversight of charters more strict, not less.