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Perspective | Charter schools are the solution — not the problem — to our inequitable education system

Throughout our nation’s history, there have been few facets of American society more inequitable than education. For centuries, because of discriminatory zoning policies, disproportionate school funding, and other overtly racist laws, race and background largely determined the quality of education one could receive. Even after tangible progress was made with seminal rulings like Brown v. Board of Education, glaring disparities have remained too prevalent.

Fortunately, North Carolina’s leaders eventually realized that the public school system alone could not address the fault lines and weaknesses in our education system. In 1996, several innovative leaders decided to implement something new: the public charter school, founded on the principle that all students, regardless of race or background, should have the opportunity to receive a free, first-rate education.

Since then, charter schools, which will always be free and open to all, have offered exceptional student learning environments and created opportunities for all students nationwide — and especially in North Carolina. The facts speak for themselves; in three key metrics — student-family wellbeing, academic performance, and diversity — charter schools are a beacon. For example, in 2016, two national surveys found that, on average, charter school parents are more satisfied with their children’s schools than are district-school parents. At the same time, a higher percentage of charter schools more frequently receive A-ratings than district schools — a testament to their standards of excellence. 

On top of that, charters in our state are serving virtually the same percentage of black and white students as district schools (and only a slightly lower percentage of Hispanic students). And in key classes, including language and mathematics, students of color are performing at higher rates than their district counterparts.

So today, when I hear claims from progressives that charter schools are perpetuating segregation, I am troubled for a variety of reasons. First, these claims are misleading. A research report by The Urban Institute found that, when examined across districts, charter schools actually decrease segregation for some groups. And as my colleague Dr. Nathan Barrett points out in a recent op-ed, the fact that some schools are disproportionately represented across racial lines is primarily the product of housing.

More importantly, claims about charters and segregation fail to recognize that charter schools are progressive changemakers, empowering communities with the personalized education systems that will prepare students to succeed in the 21st century. It’s high time we move away from targeting charters to holding our elected officials accountable for ensuring all students have access to a quality public education.

Today, as I look at the excellent work charter schools are doing in our state, I can confidently say that they have become active mobilizers in the ongoing fight for diversity and cultural competency in education. Indeed, cultivating schools that are diverse and capable of serving all students regardless of their race is central to the core missions of charter schools in North Carolina. And many public charter schools, recognizing that students from underserved backgrounds were not receiving the quality of education they deserve, have gone a step further, implementing plans to diversify their student bodies.

Several charter schools stand out for their exemplary commitments to diversity. According to the 2018 Charter Schools Annual Report, both Exploris School in Wake County and Moore Montessori Community School in Moore County have applied for an amendment that would allow them to encourage admissions of students from low socio-economic backgrounds. These schools have since been approved to conduct weighted lotteries.

Additionally, the Francine Delaney New School in Asheville has been recognized as a “Diverse by Design” charter, noted for its commitment to strategies for diverse enrollment and its ability to cultivate an educational environment that values diversity. That commitment is more than a promise; it has led to a school where all students feel they can succeed, and one where parents are confident in sending their children and hopeful about their success in the classroom and beyond.

Lastly, it’s important to recognize that charters are creating classroom environments where students feel empowered and recognized. As I wrote in an op-ed in June, a Thomas Fordham Institute study found that students of color in North Carolina’s charter schools are approximately 50% more likely to have a black teacher than their traditional public school counterparts. The study also found that charter schools proportionally employ about 35% more black teachers than traditional public schools. As is widely recognized, black students who have at least one black teacher are more likely to graduate from high school and consider attending college. In short, charters’ commitment to diversity is setting students up for success.

Throughout my time as an education advocate, I’ve returned to a simple goal: pursue approaches that give all students the best shot at a quality education, hold policymakers accountable to solutions that work, and make sure families are given the facts they need to choose what’s best for them. Within our public school ecosystem, charter schools are unequivocally a catalyst for opportunity, offering students diverse and integrated classrooms that prepare them for success in college and beyond.

That’s what I fight for every day, and it’s the students who give me the hope to continue.

Rhonda Dillingham

Rhonda Dillingham is the Executive Director of the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools.