News: CJ Exclusives

Unease Pervades Charter School Meeting

No Child Left Behind, curriculum, other subjects covered by speakers

The sixth annual North Carolina Charter School Conference was held July 22–25 in New Bern. The theme of the conference was “NCLB,” a reference to both the No Child Left Behind Act, and an acronym for the conference’s focus —“Nurturing, Challenging, Learning & Believing in all children.”

According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in Raleigh, the purpose of the conference in New Bern was to “provide charter school stakeholders the opportunity to come together to share innovative ideas and promising practices.”

Over the four-day conference, several workshops were conducted that were geared toward the conference’s primary audience of charter school officials and board members. Sessions and workshops addressed a variety of topics ranging from school governance and curriculum design to the No Child Left Behind Act and sharing important information on the North Carolina Report Card.

Roger Gerber, executive director of The League of Charter Schools, was disappointed in the selection of workshops. In his view, the “education monopoly” should not have been running the conference; according to Gerber, “the topics missing are market-oriented subjects [such as] marketing and public relations.”

Also on-hand at the conference were a number of private vendors, including book providers, architects, and other companies with products of interest to the charter school community.

“The vendors were the only portion of the conference that DPI was not responsible for and they were really helpful to the attendees,” Gerber said.

Organizations such as the North Carolina Education Alliance and The League of Charter Schools were present as well, to provide support and assistance to charter schools.

Several high-profile speakers were spread across the weekend. State Treasurer Richard H. Moore spoke to the conference first. As treasurer, Moore is solely responsible for more than $60 billion in public monies and state investments. He also serves on the State Board of Education and the State Board of Community Colleges.

In his speech, “Leading the Way,” Moore covered a variety of subjects, giving a description of his job responsibilities and the services provided to charter schools by his office. In addition, he briefly touched on how North Carolina is “leading the way” in the charter school movement and how charter schools in North Carolina illustrate the creativity and innovation of citizens in the state.

Moore concluded his speech highlighting the Unclaimed Property Program, which is designed to recover unclaimed or forgotten property and return them to their rightful owners.

Moore went so far as bringing unclaimed property claim forms to the conference for certain attendees with unclaimed items.

“When he started calling out names, it was like he was giving door prizes,” mused Lindalyn Kakadelis, director of the North Carolina Education Alliance. “Richard Moore became the most popular speaker at the conference when he started giving away money,” she said.

Michael Petrilli, associate deputy undersecretary of the state Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, also spoke to the attendees. Petrilli oversees about two dozen discretionary grant programs that support a variety of education reforms.
He also coordinates the office’s evaluation and dissemination activities and works to promote promising innovations in education.

Before his appointment to the department, he served as program director of an education-oriented nonprofit called the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, where he led school reform efforts in Dayton, Ohio.

Petrilli discussed how to receive grant money provided by the Department of Education for charter schools. According to Petrilli, a large supply of money has been allocated for charter schools under the No Child Left Behind Act. The money is being administered through the Office of Innovation and Improvement.

The program supports planning, development, and initial implementation of charter schools, and those schools awarded a grant my receive up to three years of assistance provided the charter school does not use more than 18 months for planning and program design and no more than two years for the initial implementation of a charter school.

“This was one of the most important speeches given at the conference,” Kakadelis said. “A lot of the board members and officials didn’t know that this money was available, and it can substantially help the charter schools across the state.”

Dr. Howard L. Fuller spoke to the conference specifically about the charter school movement. Fuller is a distinguished professor of education, founder-director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., and a prominent advocate for school choice. Fuller discussed the importance of school choice. He said that individuals who have the foresight to start a charter school must accept all the challenges they entail.
“The charter school movement is not just an educational strategy, but it is a power relation shift, into a social movement,” Fuller said.

Fuller’s speech was the highlight of the conference, both Kakadelis and Gerber said. Gerber expressed regret about the number of conference attendees who missed the keynote talk. “Those individuals that did not attend that speech were the ones who needed to hear it the most,” Gerber said.

As the executive director of the League of Charter Schools, Gerber said he was worried about the future of charter schools in North Carolina. “The Office of Charter Schools is performing a high-wire act; it’s a little bit of freedom and a little bit of socialism rolled into one, due to their uneasy alliance with DPI,” he argued.

Gerber said the “uneasy alliance” between charter schools and DPI is one of the fundamental issues facing charters. He that because of that uneasiness, DPI should not have sponsored the charter school conference.

“Charter schools are the first step in redefining public education, from a top-down government monopoly, where parents and students are assigned to schools according to their geographical location, to a system where tax dollars are given to parents and students so that they can shop for the best education that meets their needs,” Gerber said. “People [need to be] treated like citizens with a right to choose. Fuller explained that, and all DPI officials should have heard it.”

Nichols is an intern at the John Locke Foundation.