The nine remaining fast-track applications for new charter schools this year sped into the State Board of Education's purview last week, resulting in some soul-searching about what to do with them.
Board members were clear that the General Assembly has given them little choice: They must approve all or most of the applicants or face the wrath of Republican legislators who very nearly eliminated the board from the decision-making process when they wrote Senate Bill 8 last year. SB 8 abolished the old cap, which limited the number of charter schools in the state to 100. It also established the new Public Charter Schools Advisory Council, which recommended the nine applying schools to the board of education.
Republican leaders were adamant that some new charter schools open for the 2012–13 school year—hence, the fast-track process.
Board member Jean Woolard, a former teacher from Plymouth who was appointed by Gov. Bev Perdue, said the board should urge the General Assembly to provide extra funds to affected local school districts. They lose money when a charter school opens and siphons students away from public schools. Woolard urged the Legislature to "put its money where its mouth is."
Otherwise, though, she was among those sounding resigned to the spread of charter schools. "I feel that we have to make it work in some way," Woolard said. "If the General Assembly chooses not to [add funds], then that's their responsibility."
However, some members made no secret of their distaste for what SB 8 may bring. "It seems to me," said Earlie Coe, the Surry County Board of Education chair and an advisory member representing the state school boards association, "that I am sitting at the table for the demise of public education."
William Harrison, Perdue's appointee as State Board of Education chairman, tried to look on the bright side. "We're not going to let that happen," Harrison told Coe.
At its March meeting, the board is expected to decide on the nine applications, including three which would seek to open new charter schools in the Triangle. In loosely structured discussions about the applicants in committee meetings and a formal meeting last week, board members expressed little hesitation about seven of the nine, but some members questioned two schools looking to open in Chapel Hill-Carrboro and in Research Triangle Park, respectively.
The first, the proposed Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School, would be an elementary school (K-5) intended to expand to K-8. The applicants are a combination of Chapel Hill-Carrboro residents who would serve as its board and a for-profit company based in Michigan, National Heritage Academies, which runs 71 charter schools in Michigan and elsewhere.
The Lee school's stated purpose is to focus on minority students and close the achievement gap between them and more affluent white students. Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district leaders say they're making progress toward that goal already and the charter school would undermine their efforts.
Harrison said he's considering Chapel Hill-Carrboro's arguments as well as the objections raised by Durham school leaders to the other local application, which is for a science-focused Research Triangle High School somewhere in RTP under the auspices of the nonprofit Contemporary Science Center in Durham.
The third applicant in the area, the proposed Triangle Math and Science Academy, is eyeing the building on Moore Square in Raleigh once occupied by Exploris Middle School, a charter school now located on Hillsborough Street. The organizers, who already run one charter school, the Triad Math and Science Academy in Greensboro, have ties to Turkey and to Turkish-American communities here, giving their school a flavor of separatism—ethnic or religious—that is common to charter schools around the country.
In an interview, Harrison acknowledged the many thorny issues surrounding charter schools but said the board is "trying to deal with the cards we're dealt."
North Carolina's law on charters, he said, is loosely written and concentrates on whether a group can follow financial rules, not whether its chances of achieving academic success are any good.
SB 8, enacted last year, removed the cap, but otherwise the law was unchanged. But without the cap, the effect of having such a loosely written law was changed fundamentally. Before, applicants were competing for a limited number of charter school slots, with competition inherent in the process. Now, an unlimited number of charter schools will be allowed, with no competition for slots and no other performance standards they must meet.
The law, for example, lacks an enforceable standard regarding diversity, Harrison said. It does state that every school should: "... reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the general population residing within [the school district] or the composition of the special population that the school seeks to serve."
But no school has ever been sanctioned for not complying with that provision.
Asked if the board could use the cited provision as the basis for a rule prohibiting predominantly affluent, white schools in a diverse county, Harrison said he doesn't think so. The reason, he said, is that the General Assembly's obvious intent in passing SB 8 was not to have any standards for diversity or access.
Legislators considered but rejected, Harrison noted, provisions that would've required charters to provide transportation and offer free or reduced-priced lunches to low-income students.
Lack of transportation and the cost of food could impede low-income kids who want to attend a charter school in the suburbs but live miles away. Under the law, students have a right to apply and must be accepted or placed in a lottery if the school is full—but the school is not obliged to get them there.
That's a key reason why, according to Duke Professor Helen Ladd's survey last year, one-third of the state's existing 100 charter schools are predominantly white, while one-quarter of them are predominantly black and Hispanic. Less than half are racially and economically diverse.
The law, Harrison said, does allow local school districts to submit impact statements describing how they might be hurt (or helped) if a charter school opens—but even then the board's power is limited. "The law says they can write it, and we can consider it, but what do we consider?" Harrison asked.
One of the fast-track applicants, for instance, is seeking to open the old Bear Grass High School in Martin County. The Martin County school board is strongly opposed. It closed the school four years ago, it said in its impact statement, as part of a consolidation of two small, predominantly white schools and two small, predominantly minority schools into a pair of diverse ones,
The old Bear Grass school was 80 percent white; Martin County officials fear that if it reopens as a charter, it will pull mainly white students out of the diverse county system, perhaps forcing the district to close one of its remaining two schools.
Durham Public Schools has 35,180 students; more than 3,000 of them are enrolled in eight charter schools in the county. In his impact statement, DPS superintendent Eric Becoats described a variety of science-based school programs his school district operates. He said a new science, technology, engineering and math high school in RTP would duplicate these programs, taking students and funds from the county that it needs to continue offering them.
DPS is losing more money to charters on a percentage basis than any district in the state, Becoats wrote. "Durham Public Schools wishes to collaborate with the eight existing [schools] rather than compete," he said. But if the eight expand and a ninth is added, "the loss of this amount of local funding compounded with the state funding impact of this growth severely impacts DPS' ability to provide a sound basic education for its students."
Harrison said the fast-track process has worked well, and he complimented the charter schools advisory council for nominating serious applicants. Starting this spring, however, when at least 70 groups are expected to apply for the 2013–14 school year, Harrison said the board and General Assembly need to devise a "much more thoughtful, much more deliberate" process focused on a group's academic plans and its local impact.
Long-term, Harrison said, the challenge is to integrate charter schools into a unified public school system and keep them from becoming a separate force undermining public education. Letting charter schools re-create school segregation must also be prevented, he said.
"I don't have a desire to preside over a policymaking [body] that accelerates the resegregation of the public schools, and there's the potential for that to happen," Harrison said. "Somehow, we need to find a way to make connections" between the charter schools and traditional public schools "and see that we're in this thing together."