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Lee charter school awaits final approval from state advisory board

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

The state Public Charter School Advisory Council has given the go-ahead for the proposed Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School to enter the next stage in its approval process.

The advisory council, which recommends policies for adoption by the State Board of Education regarding charter school operations, will interview the school’s representatives in July before determining whether it’s approved.

The Lee school had previously been given fast-track approval to open for the 2012-13 school year – one of nine schools across the state approved after the General Assembly lifted the 100-school cap on charter schools in the state – but then ran into some snags. The school’s board earlier this spring notified the Department of Public Instruction that it had “encountered challenges regarding the school’s facility” and that it would need to delay its opening.

Because the fast-track charter application approval was only valid for the school to open in 2012, its board was required to resubmit an application for the 2013-14 school year.

A permanent site has since been identified. Earlier this month, the developers of Claremont South, a development proposed for 38 acres on the south side of Homestead Road, proposed to the town revising their project plans so as to include the Lee school.

The Lee Scholars Charter School would partner with a for-profit, Michigan-based management company, National Heritage Academies. The school’s application states that its purpose is to provide “high-quality K-8 education that closes achievement gaps and places each student on the path to college readiness.”

But both the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) Board of Education and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP have expressed opposition to the charter school.

In a January letter to State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison, the CHCCS board wrote that while they believed the Lee school’s application to be well-intentioned, they were concerned with the school’s proposed business model. They cited, for example, fewer teachers per student and only one teacher’s assistant for the elementary school.

The letter further expressed the concern that the school “could divert $4.6 million or more in scarce resources at a time of severely constrained budgets, and make it even more difficult for students’ needs to be served in either the CHCCS district or the new charter school.”

Board members and CHCCS Superintendent Tom Forcella have also said that targeting minority students will reduce diversity in the public schools. The Lee school’s charter states that 64 percent of the 45,000 students at National Heritage Academies partner schools are students of color.

Research conducted by Helen Ladd of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy indicates that charter schools themselves tend toward racial concentrations. Of the 100 charter schools in the state prior to the cap being lifted, Ladd found that 37 were more than 80 percent white and 26 were less than 20 percent white.

Ladd’s research also found that charter schools tend to expand the black/white achievement gap. Overall, she has argued, the negative effects of attending charter schools are considerable.

Charter school proponents counter that charter schools tend to admit students who aren’t performing well in traditional schools, tend to have fewer “gifted” students, and that comparisons are thus inexact.

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