North Carolina, Others, Hotly Debate Charter School Rules

Last Updated: June 26, 2012

This article appeared in the June 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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The last several years have seen an upswing in efforts to expand the role of charter schools. The Obama administration has included charter requirements in several federal initiatives. The free-market oriented American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has drafted model legislation for charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits, virtual schools, and other education issues. Influential private foundations have pushed charter schools and legislation. For-profit companies have lobbied Congress and state lawmakers for access to public education dollars. And the list goes on.

This year activity around charter development and expansion has been fierce in several states.

In Mississippi and Alabama, proposed legislation to establish charter schools was defeated, with much political maneuvering on both sides of the political aisles. 

South Carolina expanded its charter law to allow for single-gender and university-operated charter schools and to require regular schools to include charter students in extracurricular activities. Massachusetts increased the number of seats in charter schools. And, Missouri expanded the number of charter schools, but also added new accountability measures. 

North Carolina plans could signal big changes to public school structures 

Some of the most intense activity has been in North Carolina, where state lawmakers are proposing big changes in the state's public school system via new charter school laws. 

Last year, in response to requirements for Race to the Top funds, the legislature did away with a provision that capped the total number of charter schools at 100. By early this year nine charters were on a "fast track" for review by the State Board of Education to open in the fall of 2012. And an administrative court has become involved in an especially controversial effort to establish a virtual charter run by a for-profit company.

This potential for rapid charter expansion, increase in for-profit presence, loose oversight, and limited requirements on the kinds of services charters offer suggest the state could see significant changes in the structure of its public education system. 

One change is likely to be in the socialeconomic and racial makeup of schools. The law says that charters should reflect the composition of the school district. But that provision has not been enforced. Many existing charters do not match their district's economic demographics. And, many are much more racially-identifiable than the district as a whole. That means charters may contribute to increases in social and racial segregation within the overall school system. 

Another change could be in the role of for-profit companies. Under current law, the state can only approve the charter applications of non-profit organizations. But for-profits can create non-profits to be the charter applicant. And, non-profit applicants can contract with for-profit companies to manage the school. In these ways, charter schools provide a new opening for channeling public school money to for-profit companies with very little financial oversight or accountability in the process. 

The expansion of the charter law is also challenging the governance authority of local school boards in indirect ways. For example, a court ordered the Martin County school board to nullify its lease of a vacant school to a local community and instead provide the building free of charge to a charter school saying that the school system thought it had a "monopoly" on public schools in the county. In North Carolina, local school boards have no authority over charters within their districts. 

The authority of th State Board of Education could also be challenged now that an administrative court seems to have approved a virtual charter operated by the for-profit company K12 after the State Board did not act to approve the application of NC Learns, K12's non-profit organization. The State Board has appealed.

Equity measures sought 

Efforts to expand charter schools in North Carolina have met with resistance from a number of local school boards and citizen groups. 

Some of the resistance has to do with issues of authority and which organizations answer to the public for schools.

Some resistance is financial. Education funding has been cut significantly in recent years and regular schools lose more funding when students transfer to charters.

Much of the resistance relates to the fact that charter schools get public school funding but don't have the to operate by the same rules as regular schools. For example, North Carolina law does not require charters to offer transportation or food services, including free and reduced price lunches, which can limit enrollment to students from families with financial resources.

Charters can also impose parent agreements, behavior contracts, academic requirements, and other restrictions that effectively turn away certain students. 

Further, charters are released from many transparency requirements, including competitive bidding, that apply to regular schools, and they are not bound by the state's teacher personnel policies.

While charter supporters claim these "freedoms" enable schools to innovate, critics charge that they obscure school expenditures, make it difficult to hold charters academically accountable, undermine due process for both staff and students, and ultimately increase inequity. Many critics want transparency measures in place that will ensure that charters serve all students equitably and that public funding is easily tracked. 

North Carolina, not so different

The expansion of charter schools ahs been fast and controversial in North Carolina. But the complex issues are not so dissimilar to those in many states. Those issues cross class, race, and party affiliation. They cut to the heart of what it means to operate a shared civic enterprise, one charged with simultaneously serving the most vulnerable children, a national economy, local communities, and a political system that desperately needs an educated and thoughtful citizenry. 

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Read more from the June 2012 Rural Policy Matters.