With Republicans in the General Assembly racing to fulfill their campaign promise of more—and probably many more—charter schools, the caution flags are flying over racial and economic segregation in most of the existing charter schools.
Democrats, meanwhile, worry that the charter schools will eventually function like segregated private schools but with public funding. "What I see coming out," said state Sen. Charlie Dannelly, a retired Charlotte educator and a member of the Legislative Black Caucus, "is two school systems, one constitutional and the other ... I'm almost ready to call them public-charter private schools."
According to data from the state Department of Public Instruction, 62 of the 99 charter schools currently operating in North Carolina are either predominantly white or predominantly black. Statewide, enrollment at 41 of the current charter schools is 80 percent white or higher; at 21 charters, enrollment is at least 80 percent black or black and Hispanic.
A major reason for the split: Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools aren't required to provide transportation or meals to students and most don't. Nor are they required to participate in the federal program of free or reduced lunches for low-income students. Thus, low-income, black and Hispanic students don't commonly find their way to suburban, predominantly white charter schools, nor do white students attend schools in predominantly black neighborhoods.
The GOP's proposed legislation, Senate Bill 8, would lift the current cap on the number of charter schools—now at 100—and allow for an unlimited number. As it stands, SB 8 would change the funding formulas for charters to give them more money, but it would still not require meals or transportation—a deficiency to which a number of critics object.
Not surprisingly, the schools with mostly minority students are located in the state's urban centers, with four schools each in Durham and Mecklenburg (Charlotte) counties and three each in Wake and Forsyth (Winston-Salem).
And while many of the predominantly white charter schools are in suburban or rural counties with scant minority populations overall, that's not always the case:
The chief sponsor of SB 8 is Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, the former Wake County manager. Stevens acknowledges the segregated nature of many charters but says they're the result of "some schools successfully targeting minority or special-needs students" who haven't done well in traditional public schools.
The fact that North Carolina is failing to graduate one-third of its high school students, Stevens says, is an "F" in his grade book, which calls for dramatic changes. These include more charter schools to challenge the traditional schools. His bill, he notes, would allow county governments for the first time to help build or acquire buildings (including abandoned public schools) for charter schools. The bill also would allow county school systems to convert existing schools to charter status.
As charter schools, they would be exempt from needing (among other things) cafeteria facilities or kitchens, playgrounds or buses; and from personnel laws governing teachers and other staff in the traditional public schools.
An earlier version of Stevens' bill would have eliminated an existing legal provision that charter schools "provide racial/ ethnic balance" and reflect the demographic makeup of the county they're in. But in a committee meeting last week, Stevens dropped that position. Yet it hardly matters—the provision on diversity has never been enforced. In the 15 years charter schools have existed in North Carolina, none has ever lost its charter—except for a few that went broke.
Until the Republicans captured the General Assembly in the 2010 elections, Democratic leaders in Raleigh opposed adding charters or changing the law against any charter growing its student enrollment by more than 10 percent a year. As a result, the number of charter students in the state is a mere 41,000 out of nearly 1.5 million public school students.
With Republicans in charge, however, charter school opponents are bending to the reality that the cap will be lifted and the number of charters could grow exponentially.
Thus, the N.C. Association of Educators, the teachers lobby and the N.C. School Boards Association have signaled grudging acceptance of Stevens' bill in a pair of Senate education committee meetings in the last two weeks, but only if the bill is amended to require transportation and meals.
Failing to do so, said Leanne Winner, a lobbyist for the school boards association, would mean that while some students could choose to attend traditional public schools or a charter school, many low-income kids would be shut out of charters: "Their economic situation will make their choice for them."
"The lack of transportation and food," Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, agreed, "are real barriers to low-income kids."
Stein and Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, are pushing for stronger accountability provisions than exist either in SB 8 or the current law. They say that if the point of charter schools is to show how education can be improved, then charter schools should be asked to do some serious reporting of performance data.
Discussion of SB 8 was scheduled to continue this week in the Senate Education Committee. Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, one of the committee chairs, said he expects Wednesday's meeting on the bill to be its last, with a vote to send it to the Senate floor planned.