My youngest starts kindergarten next year, so we are knee-deep in the school choice process. We are lucky to live in Wake County, where almost every school is great, and we have a multitude of magnet and calendar options. But, to be honest, those choices have become more than a little overwhelming.
We’re considering charter schools, but I’m pretty conflicted about it. When I put on my mom hat, I want to send my kids to whatever school is best for them. But, when I have my education policy hat on, I am still concerned about charter schools and their lack of oversight.
Charter schools are tuition-free, independent public schools exempt from many of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools. They are intended to be spaces of educational innovation, offering opportunities to students not served in traditional settings.
Legislation allowing charter schools passed in North Carolina in 1996, with the number of schools originally capped at 100. The number of charters has been steadily growing since that cap was lifted in 2011. There now are nearly 150 charter schools statewide, with 11 more set to open in August.
Charter schools are not governed by an elected board; some are operated by for-profit companies. They have no curriculum requirements and no restrictions on class size. They are only required to have 50% of their teachers licensed.
Student achievement in charter schools is fuzzy. In the North Carolina School Report Cards issued last week, 40% of charter schools received an A or B — while only 28% of public schools received those grades. However, charter schools also earned more D’s and F’s – 31%– compared to 28% of public schools.
A 2014 report by the Department of Public Instruction found that during the 2012-2013 school year, nearly 60% of charter schools performed as well as or better than the schools in the districts in which they are located.
That’s great news for the 60% — and not so great news for the other 40%. The previous year (2011-2012), a full third of North Carolina’s charter schools failed to meet annual measurable objectives. Is that satisfactory? Is that academic excellence?
A recent report by the State Auditor found that Kinston Charter Academy, which closed in September 2013, overstated attendance estimates, which inflated state funds the school received by more than $300,000; hired relatives of the CEO; and approved questionable payments. In addition, the CEO/Principal had no experience in education until joining the school as a contractor in 2007, and the School’s board did not include individuals with education degrees or prior experience in teaching or school administration.
As a result of the report, legislation is in the works to increase financial accountability for charter schools.
Perhaps the biggest policy question is the impact that funding sent to charter schools has on public schools and school districts. State funding for charters has increased from just over $16 million in 1997 to more than $255 million in 2013. Those dollars are taken from public schools (that are often already strapped for cash).
Our state ought to be about innovation in education, especially when it means reaching students struggling in traditional settings. As a parent, I recognize that bureaucracy can make it hard for teachers to focus on the individual child.
Some charter schools are doing great, and I applaud them. But what about those schools – like the one in Kinston – that aren’t serving their students, their communities, or us taxpayers? Are we paying enough attention?
Sara Lang has worked in North Carolina politics at the state, federal, and local levels for more than 15 years. A communications consultant, she lives in Cary with her husband, two young children, and a pampered dog.