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Perspective | State Board must include complete demographic information in charter school report

Every February, the State Board of Education presents a report on the current state of North Carolina charter schools to the General Assembly. This week, the Board is set to approve a charter school annual report from which key information regarding racial and socioeconomic disparities in charter schools has been removed. In order to fulfill its legal duties, faithfully comply with its self-enumerated principles, and ultimately improve charter schools in our state, the Board must include the original, complete demographic information in the annual report.

First, it’s important to note exactly what information was removed from the original draft of the report. Regarding racial demographics, the original report included direct “charter/district comparisons” which reported how many North Carolina charter schools have white and black student enrollment within 10% of the white and black student enrollment of the school district in which the charter school is located.

Similarly, the original draft included a direct comparison of the proportion of economically disadvantaged students at charter schools statewide compared to that of traditional public schools. These figures each revealed sharp demographic disparities between charter schools and their surrounding districts.

These direct racial and socioeconomic comparisons have been removed from the final draft of the report. Instead, the final draft reports only the statewide racial data (comparing the average demographics of all charters to that of all districts) and only the charter school proportion of economically disadvantaged students without including the direct charter/district comparisons or the statewide proportion of economically disadvantaged students.

This removed information is vital to gaining a full understanding of the current landscape of North Carolina charter schools and must be included in the report. Here’s why.

Reporting only statewide racial demographics without the direct charter/district comparisons veils the stark racial disparities between North Carolina charter schools and their surrounding school districts. Without deeper inquiry, the statewide racial comparison appears to suggest that North Carolina charter schools are relatively similar to their school districts in white, black, and Latinx enrollment. A more detailed inspection, though, reveals that a large majority of North Carolina charter schools enroll vastly disparate proportions of white and minority students compared to their respective school districts.

Removing the comparison of economically disadvantaged student enrollment at charter schools to traditional public schools is similarly troubling. Including the statewide percentage of charter school students who are economically disadvantaged (18.8%) while excluding that of traditional public schools (about 60%, according to last year’s report) removes all context from this data, thus hiding an extremely problematic disparity.

In explaining this removal, the Office of Charter Schools (OCS) and the Charter Schools Advisory Board (CSAB) state that data regarding economically disadvantaged student enrollment in charter schools may be flawed because some charter schools rely on parental self-reporting, instead of independently verified counts, to calculate their proportions of economically disadvantaged students. Parental self-reporting, the report states, may lead to an under-representation of the true proportion of economically disadvantaged students at these schools.

To be sure, calculating proportions of economically disadvantaged students is difficult and imperfect, especially at charter schools that rely on parental self-reporting. But perfect is the enemy of good and useful here. Extensive research and reporting, including previous annual reports, reveal that North Carolina charter schools have long served significantly disproportionately low numbers of economically disadvantaged students. To remove this comparison from this year’s annual report hides this problematic disparity.

Should we seek better, more accurate ways to collect this data? Yes. In the meantime, should we continue to honestly report the best comparative data we’ve got? Also yes.

State law and the State Board’s own principles demand that this information be included in the charter school annual report. North Carolina law specifically mandates that the annual report evaluate the effect of charter schools on the public schools in the school districts in which the charters are located (N.C.G.S. § 115C-218.110). Since the racial and socioeconomic demographics of students attending charter schools directly impact the demographics and daily operations of surrounding traditional public schools, incomplete information here falls short of this legal requirement.

Further, approving an annual report that excludes key information about charter school demographic disparities would fall markedly short of the State Board’s self-enumerated principles and strategic priorities. The Board’s current strategic plan names “equity” as one of its two guiding principles and “eliminating opportunity gaps” as its first major goal. In fact, the strategic plan explicitly aims to “increase the number of charter schools providing equitable access to economically disadvantaged students or reflecting the [school district] in which they are located.” Excluding full comparative demographic data from the annual report directly belies these goals.

To be clear, the State Board, OCS, and CSAB have made notable strides towards making charter schools more equitable and accessible, such as by encouraging weighted enrollment lotteries and advocating for transportation funding. Ultimately, though, eliminating inequity in North Carolina’s charter schools is impossible without an honest recognition of current disparities, even with imperfect data.

As the State Board votes on its annual charter school report this week, it must do so with an eye toward its legal obligations, self-enumerated values, and commitment to honestly improving charter schools in our state. True fidelity to these factors demands the inclusion of complete comparative charter school demographic information in the report.

Zack Kaplan

Zack Kaplan is a lawyer and former 5th grade teacher passionate about the intersection of racial equity and education.