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It’s time to end the war between charter and traditional public schools

Last year, charter schools turned 20 years old in our state. As I told an audience of charter supporters, “We are no longer teenagers!” Everyone realizes that charters are no longer a novel experiment but a permanent fixture in K-12 education in North Carolina. 

About five years ago, the General Assembly recognized that charters had come of age and removed the 100-school cap. In the time since, the number of students educated in charter schools in the state has more than doubled. Now, approximately 6 percent of our children are educated in charter schools.

But just as these students’ relationships with the adults around them will change as they grow to adulthood, so too must the relationship between charter and conventional schools. The young upstarts are reaching maturity. But just as when a younger generation challenges an older one, there is some tension. 

Too many conventional schools advocates reacted to the challenge from charters by attacking them as unfair competitors. They claim charters are not really “public” schools. That funding for charter students is somehow taken from their conventional school friends. That teachers who teach there are somehow traitors. That charters are not effective or accountable. Even that the plan is to replace all conventional schools with charters. 

In return, some charter advocates denigrated conventional schools as hide-bound, or worse. I think it is time to stop the generational warfare and move forward. Improving education is a goal we all share. Most studies show giving parents choices — like charters or magnet schools — help achieve that goal. Healthy competition improves both the number and quality of the choices. But healthy competition cannot exist if one side, or the other, is resentful. There needs to be mutual respect. 

Conventional school leaders need to see charters as allies toward a common goal, rather than unfair competitors. That is the attitude almost all charter leaders take. 

Let me say loud and clear, we need strong conventional schools in North Carolina, which will always be the choice of most parents. No one thinks charters can replace conventional schools. A charter education is not right for all, but it is proving the right choice for many. Charters will continue to grow. We all need to support both types of public schools so parents can find the best fit for their child.  

First and foremost, charter schools need to be recognized as PUBLIC schools. They receive their funding from the taxpayers and are regulated by the state, just like conventional public schools. An independent board oversees them, rather than a school district office. 

Public charter schools are regulated by the Office of Charter Schools in the Department of Public Instruction. Each year, all charter schools are audited by a CPA and complete the charter Performance Framework. They must adhere to a lengthy list of requirements in the charter school agreement. Their Board of Directors must follow nepotism and open meeting laws. The State Board of Education has the final say on all charter polices and oversight, just as they do with conventional schools. 

Charter funding does come from the same pots. But so do the students. Since charters are funded on the same per-pupil basis, simple math tells you that per-pupil funding for conventional students would stay the same. They do not lose funding for their own education because their friends choose to go to public charters. They might even gain some because not all local money is shared with charters — and charters get no money for buildings. All charters want is fair and equal funding for the students that have chosen to be educated there. 

Charters do adhere to different rules — though the expectations are the same. Charters are not required to offer busing, but many do. All must have a plan so it is not a barrier to a student attending the school. They are not required to offer free and reduced lunch, and many do not because of the paperwork. But every school I have talked to that doesn’t will help a student in need; they just do not get compensated for it. 

Charters do have more calendar, curriculum, and hiring flexibility. But charters are not protective of that flexibility. If conventional school leaders feel it would help them to have all or some of the charter rules, they have charter support.

Teachers who choose to work at a charter often do so because they became frustrated with the “red tape” that takes their time away from teaching. I once asked a principal why he had moved from a conventional school to a charter school. I will never forget his answer, “Because they respect my mind here!” 

Charters are being held accountable. They are judged by the same academic testing standards, including the A-F Performance Grades. Those grades are used to determine low performing charter schools, the same as conventional schools. The difference is conventional schools receive extra assistance when identified as low performing. Charter schools can be — and have been — shut down. 

Any relationship changes over time. The relationship between charter schools and the local conventional schools in the communities they both serve needs to evolve. What needs to change is the “us” versus “them” mindset, because all kids who attend public schools of whatever type are “our” kids. Charters need to maintain their independence and flexibility, but it is time to collaborate as well as compete. 

Lee Teague

Lee Teague is the executive director of the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools