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Charters Still Fighting to Grow

After a decade, charter schools still battle education establishment

Ten years after North Carolina’s first charter schools opened their doors the innovative schools of choice are still struggling for acceptance and understanding in the halls of power. Frustrated charter school supporters report little progress this year on their key legislative initiatives, while opponents continue to snipe from the sidelines.

It’s not that charter school advocates aren’t trying. At least seven bills were filed in the General Assembly this session to increase the number of charter schools or to secure more equitable funding for them. But only two got so much as a hearing in a legislative committee. One of those would mandate the closure of charter schools whose students consistently scored low on state-mandated tests, and the other would establish a legislative commission to study whether charter schools were working as intended. As of press time, neither bill had been voted on by either house.

The top priority of most charter supporters is to raise or eliminate the cap of 100 charter schools currently in force. The cap was imposed by the initial charter school law as part of a compromise, which made the legislation more palatable to charter skeptics.

Sen. Eddie Goodall, R-Union, was one of the legislators who filed a bill earlier this session to eliminate the cap. He said he is not surprised that the Senate leadership has sat on the bill.

“The Democrats have locked down public education policy in this state,” he said in a telephonic interview. “They have no vision for meaningful education reform.” He predicted that nothing would change “as long as the same vested interests run the legislature.”

Charter school opponents found ammunition in a recent study by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research that concluded charter schools must improve in four areas before the state should consider raising or eliminating the cap. According to the center’s study, North Carolina’s charter schools exhibit low academic performance relative to their regular public school counterparts, lack racial and ethnic balance, do not transfer innovations to regular public schools, and are sometimes poorly managed, especially in financial matters.

The center based its claim of poor academic performance on an analysis of charter schools‚ ratings in the states‚ ABCs accountability program, which establishes seven categories of schools based on how well students perform on standardized tests. According to the study, 53 percent of charter schools were in the bottom three categories of academic achievement, while 48.1 percent of regular public schools rated so low. The study also pointed out that the graduation rate for students in the 19 charter high schools was 55.3 percent, compared to 68.9 percent for students in regular public schools.

Responding to the study’s findings at a press conference called by Republican legislative leaders, Terry Stoops, education policy analyst of the John Locke Foundation, downplayed the differences. Referring to a handful of charter schools that just missed the cutoff for making adequate yearly progress, he said, “Slightly higher performance by only five charter schools would have resulted in charters outperforming the regular public schools.”

Other charter advocates have explained the difference in graduation rates by pointing out that six of the 19 charter high schools (including the five with the lowest graduation rates) are “alternative” schools, meaning that they focus their attention on students who are most at risk of failure. To qualify as an alternative charter school, at least 75 percent of the student body must have a history of truancy, behavioral problems, involvement with the juvenile justice system, or have been suspended or expelled from a traditional school. Without these six schools in the mix, the graduation rate for charter high schools rises to 63 percent.

To sort out the conflicting claims, the State Board of Education has convened a commission composed of legislators, educators, and civic leaders. Headed by Dr. Michael Fedewa, superintendent of formation and dducation for the Diocese of Raleigh, the commission is to conduct a comprehensive study of North Carolina’s charter school program and make recommendations for changes in law or policy, including possible changes to the cap law.

As a former chairman of the first Charter School Advisory Board, Fedewa recalls that “we were truly building the plane while we were flying it,” especially when it came to establishing policies for approving charter applications. As a result, he said, some charter applications were approved that probably shouldn’t have been.

He also noted that although the state has revoked a number of charters for various reasons, it has never done so because of poor academic performance. Some charter school supporters point out that the combination of keeping a cap of 100 schools in place while allowing chronically under-performing schools to continue operations drags down the statistical performance of charter schools overall.

In its meeting in July, the commission briefly discussed the issue of racial balance in charter schools. Joel Mattley, a consultant in the Office of Charter Schools, presented data showing that statewide, white students and black students are slightly over-represented in charter schools, with Hispanics and Asians are slightly under-represented.

He noted that since charter schools are schools of choice, it is impossible to assign students of one race to them, or bar students from another, in order to achieve racial balance. Mattley told the commission that in practice, charter schools go to great lengths to recruit a racially balanced student body, and that they generally reflect the racial makeup of the particular communities they serve, at least as well as most regular public schools.

Rash Whitman, of the Center for Public Policy Research, argues that according to the law, that’s not good enough. In an email response to questions raised by the study, she said the law required charter schools to reflect the makeup of their entire school districts. “Charter advocates may not like the racial diversity standard in the law, but that is the law.”

It’s also an issue the commission might study and recommend for change. The commission is scheduled to meet four more times.

Jim Stegall is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.