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Critics of school choice in N.C. gaining ground as issue grows more partisan

Lisa Huddleston, principal of Raleigh Charter High School, one of the top-ranked public high schools in the U.S.  (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
Lisa Huddleston, principal of Raleigh Charter High School, one of the top-ranked public high schools in the U.S. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

Raleigh Charter High School is one of the top schools in the country, but it’s not what one would call a typical public school.  

The school doesn’t have a cafeteria or an auditorium. Students don’t have a gym or sports facilities, though students can still participate in athletic activities at a neighboring park. The school building itself on Glenwood Avenue is fairly dated; it certainly isn’t what someone would call a 21st century state-of-the-art facility. 

Yet despite all the either real or perceived — or esthetic — shortcomings, students at Raleigh Charter are performing better than most students in the state.  

Supporters of school choice say that choice empowers parents to pick the best place for their children to attend school. Critics argue school-choice programs, including charter schools, siphon money and resources from traditional public schools.  

The Republican Party has enjoyed a supermajority in the General Assembly for years, and lawmakers have passed a number of school-choice initiatives expanding access to various educational opportunities.  

But that supermajority is gone, and critics of school choice, including Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, now have more of a say in terms of education policy in the state.  

Critics of school choice claim the state hasn’t done enough to hold school choice programs accountable and have devalued public schools in the pursuit of expanding school choice. 

“The emphasis on nebulous values of choice and competition have led us astray from the intended purpose of public schools serving the public good,” Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, said in an op-ed for WRAL.  

Poston said charter schools were promised as “laboratories of innovation,” but today the landscape is much different.  

“Early on, charter schools were by and large managed as home-grown nonprofits with local community boards,” Poston said. “Today … one-fifth of North Carolina’s charter schools are operated by for-profit charter management companies, 80% of which are headquartered outside of the state, far away from the communities they purport to serve with educational innovations sensitive to local needs.” 

Proponents of school choice often point to the variety of charter schools in the state as proof that increased flexibility and innovation can lead to improved student performance.  

Henderson Collegiate, a charter K-12 school in Henderson — in Vance County — serves predominately economically disadvantaged students, with 95% of the student body from low-income households. Despite coming from poverty, a majority of the students are scoring proficient in math and reading. The charter school has earned an A+ on the N.C. School Report Card and has exceeded growth for the past few years. One hundred percent of Henderson Collegiate graduating class in 2019 has been accepted into a college. 

Raleigh Charter high school enjoys similar success to Henderson Collegiate. U.S & World News Report Best High Schools ranks Raleigh Charter school ranked 64th nationally and second in North Carolina, behind The Early College at Guilford in Greensboro. 

Students and parents have taken notice. 

Raleigh Charter got 1,423 applications for admission for the 2020-21 school year, including 1,152 for ninth grade. An admissions lottery was held March 22, and 150 rising freshmen were accepted, the school’s website says. 

“Due to the high number of applications,” the site says, “non-sibling ninth-graders had a 7% chance of being accepted to RCHS in this year’s lottery.”  

Raleigh Charter continuously earns an A-plus on N.C. School Report Cards, but the actual reasons for its success depends on who you ask.  

Lisa Huddleston, principal of Raleigh Charter, said size has made it easier to personally connect with each student. The school has about 560 students, and the average class size is 19. 

“We are a smaller school, and so we think by being smaller it allows us to get to know our kids on a level that is harder when you have four times as many kids. So, being a small school helps us,” Huddleston said. “Our faculty is focused on really building relationships with kids and taking those relationships and focusing on the curriculum and helping kids grow individually.”  

Huddleston says the school doesn’t have all the glitzy and cool things some may want or desire, but it allows educators to focus on building relationships and helping students learn. 

Nearly 62% of teachers are licensed at Raleigh Charter high school, compared to a 90% average for North Carolina schools. A little more than 92% of students start school at Raleigh Charter prepared for the next grade level, while only 38.6% of the students entering ninth grade across the state are ready. Only 5% of students at Raleigh Charter come from economically disadvantaged homes, while a little more than 49% of students across North Carolina are economically disadvantaged.  

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools aren’t required to provide transportation or participate in the federal school lunch program. Oftentimes parents are responsible for getting their kids to school or making sure they’re fed, but some charter schools have worked out ways to provide transportation and lunch through nonprofit and state-funded programs.  

Charters also have calendar flexibility and don’t require all their teachers to be licensed. They can experiment with different curriculums and methods of teaching, as well.  

Huddleston said she wishes all public schools had the same flexibility and ability to focus on a narrow goal in the way Raleigh Charter does. While magnet schools and early college program schools can provide a narrowly tailored education, most traditional public schools are too large to come even close to providing such individual attention. 

The 2019 legislative session has seen a push for a statewide school construction bond to renovate, repair, and even build new traditional public schools. Charter schools don’t receive capital funding to build their facilities and often have to retrofit existing, older buildings instead of building brand new facilities.  

“Are there problems with school choice across the board? Sure, but we always have to look at how we can improve the situation all around,” Huddleston said.  

School choice first became a reality after the N.C. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that parents can homeschool their children. A few years later, in 1996, the General Assembly allowed public charter schools to set up shop in the state. It wasn’t until 2011, when the General Assembly lifted the charter school cap, that the number of charter schools exploded.  

Today, North Carolina has 184 charter schools serving around 7% of the state’s about 1.5 million students.  

Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said North Carolina is one of the few states that offers such a wide range of education options. 

“This year, approximately one in five children are attending a school of choice in North Carolina,” Stoops said.  

That number is likely to increase in years to come as more and more families opt for alternatives to traditional public schools.  

Lawmakers have been busy this legislative session. Fights over Medicaid expansion and alcohol reform have taken center stage, but several school-choice bills also have been filed. While some aim to expand school-choice opportunities for North Carolina families, a handful of bills intend to roll back the progress.  

The charge to limit school-choice options is mostly led by Democratic lawmakers. The Democratic Party picked up nine seats in the House and six seats in the Senate after the November 2018 General Election, and Republicans lost their supermajority.  

The gain in seats doesn’t mean Democratic members can pass every piece legislation on their wishlist, including school-choice rollbacks. What it does mean, though, is the Republican Party will have a tougher time getting more ambitious school-choice legislation past a Cooper veto.  

Senate Bill 247, introduced by Sens. Dan Blue, D-Wake; Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake; and Mujtaba Mohammed, D-Mecklenburg; would create a joint legislative committee to study the impact of charter schools on the local school districts. While the committee conducts its study lawmakers would place a moratorium on charter-school growth. 

“The bottom line is we need to take a break, review what’s working and what doesn’t work and then decide how to move forward,” Chaudhuri said during a news conference for the bill.  

The joint legislative committee would study and make recommendations on a series of subjects, including the academic performance of all charter school students, as compared to students in local school districts; the extent to which charter schools have an impact on segregation in local school administrative units and charter schools; and the suspension and expulsion rates in charter schools as compared to local school districts.  

Another bill, Senate Bill 583, would reduce funding for the Opportunity Scholarship program. The bill, introduced by Sens. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg; Sam Searcy, D-Wake; and Wiley Nickel, D-Wake; would appropriate money toward employing additional schoolbased personnel. Unexpended funds would go to the Public School Building Capital Fund.  

Stoops said school-choice supporters probably don’t need to worry about the aforementioned measures.

“Unless Republicans decide to betray some of their most enthusiastic supporters, neither bill is likely to pass in 2019,” Stoops said.  

But, Stoops said, it’s imperative lawmakers continue listening to parents.

“Public school advocacy groups and radical union educators generate a lot of noise,” Stoops said. “It is critical that the manufactured commotion generated by anti-choice forces in the state do not drown out the voices of those who know, better than anyone, the education that their children need.”