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Three ideas for addressing key charter schools problems

Charter schools have taken a bad rap over the past decade; rightfully so. Nationally, charters are consistently in the news for their political divides, their accountability (or lack thereof), and sometimes for their more shocking movements. As a teacher who has worked for several years both in traditional and charter schools, and as the most recently named North Carolina Charter School Teacher of the Year, I believe it’s time to pull up our socks and take a dash of humility.

Do not misunderstand me — I do not think all charter schools are bad. A case can be made that there are several in this state that are doing phenomenal things with their curriculum, students, and communities. Likewise, the reverse is also true, and unfortunately more prevalent. A recent report by the Office of Charter Schools on the percentage of NC charter schools meeting growth reflects a steep decline.

Courtesy of Kris Nordstrom, NC Policy Watch

We are clearly in a moment where charter schools have critical decisions to make as they move forward in their endeavors for education. Below are a few recommendations that would behoove the charter discussion, and help them better align to the public interest. While some debate the matter, it is imperative to remember that charters are public schools.

Alignment with better causes

In recent years, there has been a nationally-branded movement that occurs at the end of every January known as National School Choice Week. In some states, including North Carolina, there is often a rally or conference that occurs in the spirit of celebrating the ideals of school choice. At this event, there will typically be a number of politicians present, as well as advocates for the “idea of choice.”

But there is a primary concern that arises from a rally such as this: non-public school choices are promoted; more specifically, school voucher programs are promoted. It is difficult to understand how charter advocates can sit on one side of a rally such as NSCW, and then openly embrace partnership of a political agenda that is meant to damage aspects of public education, through efforts that defund public schools and willingly fund private schools which are not held accountable for student gains or failures.

As an advocate for quality non-profit charter schools, the collective of public school advocates must do far better in aligning with endeavors that promote fair, equitable, and open public education. Instead of dancing with the voucher devil, or its devilish cousins (here’s looking at you, online charter schools), let us choose to harmonize ourselves with our sister: the traditional public school.

Replace the cap

Replacing the cap on charter schools forces charter schools to return to their original mission. Proponents of charters, like Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation, believe that charter schools exist to “foster competition” between school systems. The trouble with the competitive education mindset is certainly in stark contrast to the original intent of the 1996 ratified bill. In addition, it is now less about competition of educational excellence and more about the “compet[ition] for market share and taxpayer dollars.” The education of our young citizens should not be something that is “up to compete with” as if each school system were trying to qualify for the Olympics. Instead, it should exist to bridge gaps, support each other, and help all school systems become better incubators of student growth and mindset.

Imagine for a moment that North Carolina did return to a cap of 100 charter schools. Advocates of innovation could find themselves in great company if the State Board of Education required a component of keeping the doors open to be the charter school maintaining and sharing out innovative educational practices. Likewise, advocates of competition also find themselves in excellent company, as the pressure to keep one’s doors open now sits in a highly competitive field with a possible waitlist on the side. And let us not deny for ourselves that being competitive means tightening up our accountability. We don’t just allow any school the chance to open; they must prove themselves worthy to do so, and further, must maintain that worthiness beyond their first day of school.

Back to innovative roots

I served as a consultant several years ago for the Office of Charter Schools in reviewing charter school applications to provide feedback and recommendations of those applying to be submitted to the SBE for approval. Of the applications I was assigned to, which sat in double-digit numbers, only two truly stuck out to me as being “innovative.” The rest were humdrum, and I was unclear as to their purpose for existence.

If charter schools are in any way going to help propel the cause of public education, then they must do so by sticking true to their word and being labs of innovation in education. Further, they must not only be labs of innovation, but they must share out and partner with their community of other schools (traditional and other charters) to showcase their successes. Holding charters accountable for innovative share-outs is something the State Board of Education, specifically the Charter School Advisory Board, could oversee. As a part of a new charter’s acceptance, or as a part of an older charter’s renewal, each charter school must show, through practice and data, how they are partnering with another traditional public school and sharing out best practices.

I do believe in the power of charter schools, and I equally believe in the power of traditional public schools.

Yes, there are some serious nuanced questions, and even concerns, that exist in the charter school discussion, and those are necessary conversations to have. Let us not recommend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, let us work to refine the wonderful educational system this great state provides and hold everyone accountable to the students we serve.

Douglas Price

Douglas Price is the Director of Programs for WakeEd Partnership, an independent nonprofit organization composed of business and community leaders committed to improving public education in Wake County. Douglas was the 2019 North Carolina Burroughs Wellcome Fund Charter School Teacher of the Year and is an educator of 12 years. Previously he served as a Hope Street Group Fellow: Teacher Advisory Council, EdAmbassador with EdNC, and participated in several key fellowships throughout NC, including Hope Street Group: Teacher Voice Network, the Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership, the Education Policy Fellowship Program (NC Public Forum), and the NC Collaborative (Duke Research Clinical Institute). He is a current Doctoral candidate at UNC-Greensboro in Educational Leadership.