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Searching for common ground amid tension over charters

North Carolina is among 44 states with charter school laws, one of the most significant developments in K-12 schooling in the early 21st century — not only significant, but also a subject of persistently contentious debate here and elsewhere. Examining the facts on the ground, as well as the deeply held beliefs behind them, may help cut through the conventional and divisive debate.

This issue cannot, and should not, be reduced to charter schools vs. traditional public schools. Both public-funded sectors have produced schools along the continuum from really splendid to moderately acceptable to so weak as to violate every child’s right to a sound basic education. And yet, the debate has grown divisive as a result of polarized politics, tightened budgets, and tenets in tension.

There was, in fact, choice within public systems before charter schools, and even more now. In North Carolina, magnet schools pre-dated charters. Now local districts have turned to “restart” schools that adopt the charter model while retaining district control. It is a misrepresentation of public education to describe it as one-size-fits-all.

In 1996, a majority-Democratic General Assembly authorized charter schools in North Carolina with a limit of 100. Fifteen years later, a Republican-majority legislature removed the cap on charters in pursuit of a broader “school choice’’ agenda. Now the state has 184 charter schools with 109,000 students.

Across the nation, Democrats are divided over charter schools. The Obama administration, especially concerned over weak inner-city schools, promoted charters as an urban reform. But as public school teachers marched out of classrooms and into the streets — and as Republicans linked charters with public funding of private schools (vouchers) — elected Democrats have rallied to support traditional public schools.

Republicans, meanwhile, have adopted an agenda of fostering “choice’’ — charters and vouchers as the principal tactics — while pursuing a fiscal strategy of tax cuts and budget stringency. Evidence of the Republican embrace of “choice’’ came in President Trump’s State of the Union. In an 82-minute speech, the president devoted precisely one sentence to education: “To help support working parents, the time has come to pass school choice for America’s children.”

In North Carolina, the intensity of the debate reflects a fight over relative scarcity. District superintendents see charters in effect diverting state funding — and making it difficult for them to plan as the state Board of Education makes charter-authorizing decisions. For their part, charter operators see their schools as having to operate with less per-pupil allocation than the traditional schools.

An even deeper struggle is at the core of the charter debate. There is an inevitable tension between individual autonomy and community common good, both deeply-rooted American values. Republicans touch an emotional chord when they argue for “parental choice’’ in their children’s education. Democrats draw on nearly 200 years of history in pointing to public education as foundational to American advancement in the economy and democracy.

So, what paths can North Carolina take to deal with the facts on the ground that the state will have both an array of charters and traditional schools enrolling more than 90 percent of the state’s students for the foreseeable future? To explore that question, I telephoned David Osborne, author of Reinventing America’s Schools, in which he argues that charter schools serve as catalysts to effective 21st-century public education.

Noticing that North Carolina had closed only four charters for slack performance (the state has closed others for financial shortcomings), Osborne said, “The North Carolina Board of Education needs to be tougher about closing charters. … Part of the magic of charters is that you get rid of the lousy ones.”

He pointed to Texas as a place where public school districts have partnered with charters, some “co-locating’’ a charter and a traditional school. For the most part, North Carolina has yet to see the benefits of charter innovations being taken up in public schools, which was one of the original motivations for charter school legislation. Osborne also said that Massachusetts provided supplemental five-year funding to local districts “to ease the pain’’ of adapting to charters in their communities.

Charters, he said, wake up traditional schools to compete. Non-profit charters tend to produce stronger education results than charters run by for-profit entities (in North Carolina, there are both). 

A history-laden issue emerges from research findings that charter schools have contributed to re-segregation. After all, Southern states and communities adopted “freedom of choice’’ and private academies for white students to circumvent desegregation orders. In North Carolina, said Osborne, it amounts to a “disaster’’ to authorize charters that “will be seen as segregation academies.”

What’s ultimately required, of course, is political leadership to cut through the divisiveness. In the current climate, such leadership is more likely to come from Democrats who carve a common-ground path between the hardened positions in the GOP and in their own party.

For an overview of charter schools in North Carolina, see also Molly Osborne’s recent Weekly Insight published by the NC Center for Public Policy Research.

Editor’s note: David Osborne is the father of Molly Osborne, Director of Policy and Engagement. 

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.