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Friday Interview: Charter School Controversy

JLF education expert discusses tension between charter, district schools

Despite the fact that North Carolina’s nearly 100 charter schools are public schools, tension is mounting between some of the charters and their counterparts in the traditional public school districts. At the heart of the tug of war are money and independence. Terry Stoops, John Locke Foundation director of education studies, discussed the issue with Donna Martinez for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Martinez: First of all, let’s make sure everyone understands. Charter schools are public schools, correct?

Stoops: That’s right. They’re public schools, they receive public funds, and students at charter schools are required to take state standardized tests. They are given some independence in the type of staff they hire, the way they use their money, and the curriculum that they offer. So there is some flexibility. But they are public schools run by the Department of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education.

Martinez: Late last year, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued a ruling related to funding going to charters in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system. Explain that ruling.

Stoops: Well, essentially, charter schools claim that there was money in various accounts that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools were denying to them. They would put money in a pot here, a pot there, and a pot elsewhere, and say that these are for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and are not to be shared with the charter schools. The North Carolina Court of Appeals said that’s not right — charter schools are entitled to the funds that are placed in these various accounts by the school system, except for their textbook funds. That’s the one place that charter schools are not entitled to funds. So that opens up, really, the potential for district schools to fork over thousands of dollars that they’ve denied to charter schools in the past.

Martinez: So this ruling will potentially impact other systems, not just Charlotte-Mecklenburg?

Stoops: That’s right. It’s a significant ruling, and I think we’re going to see statewide, a [legal] challenge that will say that these funds are for charter schools, charter schools are entitled to these funds, and that the school systems have inappropriately withheld them from the charter schools.

Martinez: Why would the school systems even try to withhold this money? Charters are part of the public system. What’s going on here?

Stoops: District schools — they don’t like competition, and they believe that charter schools are competition. Not only that, there is a widespread belief in these district schools that charter schools drain them of funds that they are entitled to. And unfortunately, that is really the mindset in most counties that have charter schools — that they’re competition that the school system doesn’t want and that they drain the school system of funds. Neither of which is actually true. Charter schools do a lot of good in these counties, competition is good, and the funding certainly is for students that the school system would have to serve anyway.

Martinez: So why would a traditional school believe that they’re losing funding if they don’t have that child in the traditional school to educate?

Stoops: Simply because they’re not receiving it. There is a persistent belief that they are entitled to all of the funds and that charter schools are a nuisance that takes money away from them — more importantly, that takes power away from them. They don’t consider the fact that the charter schools are actually educating students that they would otherwise have to educate. Instead, they see it purely in monetary terms — that these charter schools are supposedly taking money away that they deserve.

Martinez: So money is one issue in this whole story, but the other issue seems to be regulation and independence. Tell us about that.

Stoops: Well, basically the state wants to regulate charter schools out of business. There’s no other way to put it. And with some of the new regulations that they’re imposing on charter schools, it’s going to do that. The most recent regulation is that if a charter school, two out of three years, doesn’t meet their growth requirements and have at least 60 percent of students meet proficiency standards, they can be shut down. This is a big change, considering that the rules for closing down charter schools require much more due process than this new policy does. This new policy’s intention is just to strike down charter schools as quickly as possible, whereas the previous policy was an attempt to try to get charter schools to turn themselves around and to get them to improve their performance and thereby get students to improve their performance.

Martinez: What would happen to a traditional public school if it did not meet those same levels of accountability?

Stoops: Well, we can see what’s happening in traditional public schools right now that aren’t meeting those standards. I think nearly 200 public schools are not meeting those standards. Basically, the state pours money and human resources into these schools.

Martinez: So they’re not shut down, but a charter would be shut down?

Stoops: That’s absolutely right. In fact, some of these schools that receive services from the state — these include consultants and coaches, as well as technical assistants from the Department of Public Instruction — have been troubled schools, have been low-performing schools for decades and are still not going to be shut down, no matter what. But a charter school comes along, and if they don’t meet certain requirements two out of three years, then they’ll be shut down immediately. It’s the kind of double standard that, unfortunately, we have gotten used to in North Carolina — where one type of public school, the traditional public school, is treated much better, much superior to another type of public school, the charter school.

Martinez: The State Board, also, Terry, is implementing some sort of a regulation having to do with a requirement for a marketing plan. What’s that about?

Stoops: There’s always been this tension that charter schools don’t necessarily represent the racial and demographic makeup of the school system in which they reside. And the reason is simple — charter schools use a lottery to pick their students. If there are too many students applying for the slots available, then they use a lottery. So they can’t hand pick the type of students that go to these schools. Unfortunately, that makes it such that, since they’re randomly choosing students, a lot of the schools don’t represent the racial or demographic makeup of the school system in which they reside. And so this marketing plan is an attempt for the state to try to get charter schools, especially the new charter schools, to somehow come up with a plan to attract certain demographics and racial groups to the charter school. I don’t know how that’s going to work. It probably won’t work. And unfortunately, I think it’s an idea that’s destined to fail.

Martinez: Right now there is a cap of 100 schools, and that is set by the North Carolina General Assembly. I know there’s been an effort for years to try to either raise or lift that cap completely. Any progress there?

Stoops: No progress. And I certainly don’t expect any under Governor Perdue’s watch. The problem is that Governor Perdue, in appointing Bill Harrison to chair the State Board of Education, is using Dr. Harrison as a means by which to get back at charter schools, to try to regulate charter schools, to try to keep the cap in place, to try to reduce the services for charter schools. And that’s the real problem — that the power of the governor’s office, unfortunately, is coming down on the charter schools when they need help the most. And so this is the situation that’s going to keep the cap in place, I think.

Martinez: Terry, compare North Carolina to other states. Do we have more or less regulation of charters?

Stoops: Right now we’re about in the middle. As far as our cap goes, a lot of states either have a moving cap, which allows additional charter schools every year, or allows as many charter schools as can open in a given year. Our regulations right now are about the middle, but they are getting worse. And this new regulation, unfortunately, is starting to make North Carolina look like one of the heaviest regulated states for charter schools. And that’s a problem.