For NC charter schools, a spotty record on fulfilling promises

North Carolina’s charter schools are accountable to the State Board of Education for ensuring compliance with the provisions of their charters and applicable laws. But how well are they delivering on the promises that earned them the right to spend more than $380 million taxpayer dollars each year?

Our analysis shows many charters are not making the grade.

We reviewed the charter applications of all 100 charter schools operating in North Carolina during the 2010-2011 school year, just before the General Assembly removed the cap of 100 schools. (There are now 147 charter schools). Using information on school websites, in parent handbooks and in some cases telephone calls, we compared schools’ performance during that year to the commitments they made in their initial charter applications.

On average, these pioneering schools promised in their applications to maintain an 18:1 ratio of students to teachers. By 2011, the average was closer to 22:1. Likewise, charter applicants predicted 80 percent of their students would achieve proficiency on standardized tests. In reality, 71 percent did.

Most distressing are the findings related to the provision of transportation and lunch services, given that serving “at-risk” and low-income students was an initial goal of the state’s charter school enabling legislation.

Although charter schools are not legally required to provide

Likewise, 62 of the original charters promised to provide lunch to their students even though they had no legal obligation to do so. In fact, only 43 of them were doing so.

These services are essential for any school hoping to attract substantial numbers of minority and low-income students. Largely because so many charter schools do not offer transportation and lunch, as a group they have increased racial and socio-economic segregation in North Carolina’s schools.

The North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board, the State Board of Education and various offices within the Department of Public Instruction are charged with monitoring schools’ financial operations, academic performance and compliance with their charters. They share responsibility for assuring that public dollars are being spent wisely.

If the state’s oversight mechanisms were unable to track

▪ Strengthen the application guidelines for charter schools. Charter applicants should be required to carefully consider their operating model with particular attention to the costs of providing lunch and transportation services and their recruitment strategies for disadvantaged students. More detailed applications should help the Advisory Board identify flaws before the school is approved and should help school administrators better adhere to their contracts once the school is open.

▪ Shorten the timeline for state review from the current 10-year period to five years. A shorter window would strike a balance between ensuring N.C. schools are successful and allowing charters to operate with a sense of autonomy.

▪  Expand the capacity of the various offices within the Department of Public Instruction, including but not limited to the Office for Charter Schools. DPI will clearly need more personnel to support and monitor the growing number of charter schools.

▪ Impose consequences when a charter school fails to meet its contractual obligations. These consequences might include financial penalties or school closure. Organizations applying for a charter need to understand that they will be held accountable for their commitments.

As more and more students enroll in charter schools across the state, it is high time for North Carolina to provide the tools and resources needed to ensure taxpayer money is being well spent and families are getting the services for which they signed up.

Helen Ladd is a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Allison Eisen is Duke senior majoring in public policy who gathered the data presented here for her senior thesis.