It’s school choice season in North Carolina. With magnet lotteries in full swing, and charter lotteries underway, my social media feeds are full of fretting parents asking for advice and recommendations regarding where they should send their children.
I follow a lot of these conversations, hoping to distill some wisdom as I gear up for my own run through the school choice gauntlet, and everywhere I look, I see parents enmeshed in a debate, sometimes with themselves, about charter schools. One side fervently believes that charter schools are responsible for ruining public education as we know it; every dollar sent to a charter school is taking away from an honest to goodness public school. The other side sees charter schools as a more personalized approach to education; parents get to choose an educational model that works best for their children and families.
Charter schools are a hot topic in North Carolina right now. Our state is home to 148 charter schools (an almost 50% increase since the 100-limit cap was lifted in 2011), and 11 more will be added for the fall of 2015. In addition, the State Board of Education recently approved a pilot program for two virtual charters for the 2015-2016 school year.
So, like it or not, we have a lot of choices. As parents and guardians, we try to figure out how to make the best choice for our kids by arming ourselves with information.
But not all of that information is made equal. And that is the problem with doing all of one’s research using social media, as I learned this past week.
“DON’T SEND YOUR KIDS HERE.” All caps, in my Facebook feed, regarding a charter school in the state. What followed was a terrible story of parental frustration and a lack of administrative leadership to deal with the situation. And then, of course, there were the comments that continued to bash not only the school, but the school’s parent company.
The parent company is National Heritage Academies, which operates charter schools in North Carolina and several other states. Accusations flew in the discussion section: they exploit low-income children, their teacher turnover rate is high, their report card rating is low, they are all flash and no substance, a sales pitch and no product. Only a crazy person would send their child there.
Initial research into the company following my Facebook “research” turned up lots of suspect things, including a damning Huffpost article asking “Why is this Charter School Management Company Still in Business?” Moreover, the report card ratings were spot on; the school had not received a good rating from the state.
I looked into the other seven schools National Heritage Academies runs in North Carolina. The evidence there, however, was inconclusive. Some of their schools perform extremely well, receiving B grades for their report card, while some did poorly. But the only thing that these results demonstrated was the correlation between the performance of a school and the percentage of free and reduced lunch children who attend it. This is not a damning report of the school or the charter company; rather it is an indictment of the report card “grading” system itself.
I was so convinced by my social media sources that the school was “bad,” that I kept looking for some more evidence to support that claim. Instead, I found a friend who sends their child to the school.
They love it.
They appreciate the structure of the school, they love their child’s teacher, and they find the administration to be responsive and eager to please.
At the end of the day, all of my anecdotal research summed up to zero.
My research into the company, National Heritage Academies, still gives me cause for concern, and I am uneasy about a for-profit model when it comes to public education dollars. Because one thing I was unable to find was any information about the financial dealings of the company.
If charters are indeed the way that education in our state is heading, at least for now, we need to figure out a better way to get information about the schools, their policies, and the parent companies that run them. Otherwise, we are relying on hearsay and speculation, which is a terrifying way to determine your child’s future.
Melissa Geil is a freelance writer and English teacher. Although originally from New York, she moved to North Carolina the first time for college (go Tar Heels), and now she is back to stay. She enjoys reading, hiking, and gallivanting around the triangle with her family.