Charter schools are off and running in North Carolina since the Republicans took charge.
The number is up 50 percent in four years, to 148, with 11 more coming next fall. What should we think about this?
a) It's an attack on traditional public education.
b) It's a windfall for Wall Street.
c) Look out for profiteering.
d) Charters can help at-risk kids.
My answer, at various times, has been all of the above.
Going back 20 years, I was a proponent of charter schools only if they were in low-income areas where large numbers of students weren't succeeding in traditional public schools.
Today, a few such charters exist, but they're out-numbered by those in upscale locations serving the well-off. Meanwhile, the profiteers—for-profit management companies working for complaisant boards—have cut themselves in, while state oversight is cut out. And Wall Street funders are getting theirs.
That's why I can't think of much good to say about charter schools in North Carolina. But when I was in a church in the poorest part of Raleigh last month listening to the pitch for a new charter school called PAVE Southeast Raleigh, I remembered the old days.
PAVE SE Raleigh will begin in the fall with two classes each of kindergarten and first-graders, adding a grade each year until it's K–8.
The audience at the pitch meeting was young ones and their moms, dads, grandparents, a high-energy group of maybe 80. The food was plentiful and the tiny Ship of Zion Church was packed.
As I watched these children behaving themselves, I thought about what happens to economically disadvantaged kids during their school years. Most get through it. But in Wake County, one in three don't make it to high school graduation.
Every small face in that room, though, shined with potential. Principal Ariana Kanwit called the children "scholars," and told their parents, "Your kindergartner will come home talking about college."
She was showing pictures of the flagship PAVE Academy in a tough part of Brooklyn, where classrooms are named Harvard or Syracuse and the goal is to be "college-ready." It was slick marketing, but you can only fake so much. The kids' test scores are above average.
On the way out, I spoke approvingly to J.B. Buxton, the new school's board chair. Buxton used to be the top education aide to Democratic Gov. Mike Easley, and is a nationally known consultant. "This is why we both used to be in favor of charter schools," he told me.
Later, I talked with Kanwit and Buxton and tried every way I could think of to argue that, even if their charter school might seem like a fine idea, charter schools are bad.
Even when a charter school is in a low-income area, it may cherry-pick the "better" children with more attentive families. leaving the worst-situated kids to the traditional public schools.
Kanwit assured me she is going door-to-door and church-to-church in the very poorest neighborhoods of Southeast Raleigh, recruiting students in English and, as needed, in fluent Spanish. Almost half the applicants so far are Hispanic.
"We are very purposely trying to recruit the most at-risk children in Wake County," she said.
PAVE isn't a management company looking for profits. It's a nonprofit started by Spencer Robertson, whose father, Julian Robertson, was born in North Carolina and became a billionaire on Wall Street. So far, Friends of PAVE Inc. has a single school in Brooklyn; PAVE SE Raleigh will be its second.
Robertson's hedge fund is one of many Wall Street firms putting money into charter schools in low-income areas. This allows them to tap New Market Tax Credits, a Clinton Administration invention intended to spur business investment in poor communities. Between the tax credits and loans to help schools build facilities, such funds are virtually guaranteed to double their money in seven years, according to experts.
While the Wall Street angle sounds evil, in North Carolina it fills a void where state money doesn't: Charter schools here receive no taxpayer funds for facilities. So while upscale charters build with donated funds, those in low-income areas may rent space with money they should pay to teachers.
With Wall Street backing, PAVE can build or buy first-rate space while paying for small class sizes; two teachers per classroom; an extended school day; an extended year (by two weeks); and free bus transportation. The money will also support extensive faculty development.
Kanwit's family has ties to North Carolina. She has taught in both traditional public schools and charters, the last three years at PAVE in New York. "We don't blindly support charters," she said. "I have close friends who are very anti-charter. I just happen to be in love with PAVE."
"I'm of two minds about charters," I finally conceded.
"I think we're all of two minds," Buxton agreed.
There's no doubt that, by letting charter schools proliferate and funding vouchers for private schools—while short-changing traditional public schools—Republican lawmakers intend to create separate and unequal systems of education with the traditional one distinctly inferior.
But their zeal to misuse charter schools isn't a reason to abandon the good use charter schools have: to give at-risk kids the option of a different and smaller school when they're failing in a traditional one.
This article appeared in print with the headline: "The bright side: pave southeast Raleigh."