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Charter school a bad idea, foes say

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

One of the primary original objectives behind the implementation of charter schools in North Carolina was to help generate innovation in the classroom. And while, as a rule, that hasn’t happened, hardly anyone is saying the entire effort should be scrapped.

“I’ve learned that you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Randee Haven-O’Donnell. “Some charter schools really do a fine job of teaching.”

But when a proposed charter school is introduced to an informed, progressive-minded community, one that, arguably, values education above all else, questions and concerns are going to be raised – about, for example, the school administration’s accountability and transparency, how the school will meet students’ needs, how tax dollars will be spent and how innovation will be employed to meet objectives.

The State Board of Education is scheduled to make decisions today (Thursday) on approval of 25 proposed charter schools that have been recommended by the board’s Public Charter School Advisory Council. Among those is the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School, a K-8 school that under a pending proposal would be located in Claremont South, a development planned for the south side of Homestead Road in Carrboro.

If the board approves the school, its administrators will enter into a planning and training program with the state, with a decision for final charter approval coming no later than next March.

If given the nod, the school would then open its doors for the 2013-14 school year.

The Lee school’s charter application doesn’t provide a great many details about the nature of its curricula or the support services it will offer. Its stated objectives are to help close the racial and economic achievement gaps, prepare students for high school and college preparatory programs and alleviate overcrowding in the elementary schools.

The school will be co-managed with for-profit, Michigan-based National Heritage Academies (NHA), which operates more than 70 charter schools across the country, including five in North Carolina.

“It is important to note that the North Carolina State Board of Education is still considering charter applications, including the application for Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School,” said Nick Paradiso, NHA vice president of government relations, in an email response to The Citizen. “Until a charter is granted, policies and procedures for the school will not be developed.”

Meanwhile, members of the proposed school’s board of directors, headed by Angela Lee, daughter of longtime community and education leaders Howard and Lillian Lee, continue to keep a low profile. The Citizen’s requests for interviews and responses to questions have gone unanswered.

“If you want to be part of a community, you’ve got to communitize your conversation,” Haven-O’Donnell said last week, “and that’s not happening.”

Accountability issues

North Carolina law allows charter schools to operate independent of local school boards.

“Charters in North Carolina are in no way accountable to their local board of education,” said Mia Burroughs, chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education.

“If citizens are unhappy with any decisions made by a charter board, there are no local elected officials who can be held accountable,” she said. “Our district’s relationship with Lee Charter will be based only on our respective willingness to keep the focus on what is best for kids.”

Asked what channels parents would be granted to bring grievances or offer suggestions in setting policies, Paradiso wrote, “Parents are an active part of all National Heritage Academies’ schools. Specific procedures will not be determined until after a charter is granted.”

Charter schools create a “whole new accountability problem,” said Matt Ellinwood, a policy advocate for the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.

“Where does a teacher go if she has a problem?” asked Ellinwood. The first step would presumably be to go to the board of directors, though board members aren’t required by the charter school act to live in the community, or even in North Carolina. “And if that doesn’t work, where does she go next? To the out-of-state company?”

“In a public school, if you have a problem you take it through the regular channels,” Ellinwood said. “There’s a clear path of how to deal with things.” Not so with charters.

Charter school employees can be fired by the board without receiving a hearing. The schools are not required to participate in the state employees’ retirement or health plans, and, according to Paradiso, “At this time, none of National Heritage Academies’ schools in North Carolina participate in the state employee retirement system or the state health plan.”

While in traditional public schools, all teachers must be licensed, 50 percent of charter middle and high school teachers and 25 percent of elementary teachers can be unlicensed.

The schools are not required to provide teacher workdays.

As for state oversight, the Office of Charter School’s has two full-time staff members and four consultants, while the state is in the process of adding 33 schools to the existing 100.

A U.S. Department of Education study found that “many charter school authorizers lack the capacity to adequately oversee charter school operations, often lack authority to implement formal sanctions, and rarely invoke the authority they do have to revoke or not renew a charter.”

In North Carolina, full evaluation of schools isn’t conducted till the fifth year.

“It bothers me that the state doesn’t follow through on its promise to keep track of these schools and make sure they’re doing what they said they were going to do,” said Natasha Bowen, an associate professor in the UNC School of Social Work who has researched North Carolina’s charter schools.

“In their applications, they talk about a goal of reducing the achievement gap. Ten or 12 years later, you don’t see that happening, but there’s nothing done to change that.”

Closing the gap?

Bowen’s research indicates that NHA has shown little evidence to suggest it will help close the racial and economic achievement gap in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS).

The five NHA-managed schools in North Carolina are Forsyth Academy in Winston-Salem, Greensboro Academy, PreEminent Charter School in Raleigh, Queens Grant Community School in Mint Hill and Research Triangle Charter Academy in Durham.

A look at the math and reading end-of-grade (EOG) test scores for 2010-11 for those schools shows an average of 83.1 percent of white students passing, compared with 95 percent of white students in the CHCCS schools, and 48.1 percent of black students passing in NHA schools, compared with 58.8 in CHCCS schools.

NHA-managed schools in the state showed an average of 70.7 percent of non-economically disadvantaged and 56.7 of economically disadvantaged students passing EOG exams, while the numbers in CHCCS were 95 percent and 56.4 percent. The gap is narrower in the NHA schools, but the overall average is higher in CHCCS.

The percentages for EOG scores for whites and blacks at traditional public schools statewide are very similar to the NHA-school percentages. Statewide, 82.8 of non-economically disadvantaged students and 53.3 percent of those economically disadvantaged passed EOG tests.

Of equal concern to those who wish to take a measured approach to charter schools is the potential for resegregation. Research conducted on North Carolina charter schools by Helen Ladd of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy found that charter schools increase racial segregation.

Blacks tend to select schools that have a higher percentage of blacks and whites select schools that have a higher percentage of whites – though not at the same rate. Ladd’s research indicated that blacks prefer charter schools that have around a 50/50 split, whereas whites prefer schools that are less than 20 percent black.

Of the 100 charter schools operating in the state in 2010, Ladd found that 37 were more than 80 percent white and 26 were less than 20 percent white.

In the 2010-11 school year, of the five schools NHA oversees in North Carolina, two were more than 80 percent white and two were more than 80 percent black.

No incentive to innovate

And what of innovation?

“It’s hard to say what [NHA] is bringing to the table that fits with what charter schools are supposed to do,” Ellinwood said. “I don’t know what they do that’s new or innovative; I haven’t been able to find that in the application.”

In January, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education wrote a letter to the state board sharing its concern that the Lee school would “divert $4.6 million or more in scarce resources at a time of severely constrained budgets.”

Removing this money from the traditional public schools, Ellinwood said, detracts from a focus on making those schools better. “We need to be looking at what’s working in the good schools and how to make it work in the poorer ones,” he said.

Ellinwood believes the for-profit model hinders the impetus for innovation: Beyond, and in keeping with, the mandate to make money, there’s little incentive to share ideas.

‘Uh-oh’ feeling

Sending taxpayer dollars to an out-of-state for-profit corporation to educate our children doesn’t sit well with many Chapel Hill-Carrboro residents.

“Neither the Lee Charter School nor NHA is publicly accountable to community residents as to how they use our tax dollars,” said Miriam Thompson, a longtime NAACP member and grandmother of two children in the public-school system. (The local chapter of the NAACP has opposed the Lee school.)

What support services – afterschool care, tutoring, etc. – the school will provide is uncertain.

“Services are based upon the needs of the student population,” NHA’s Paradiso wrote. “These items will not be determined until after a charter is granted and students are enrolled.”

Of further concern is the possibility that students from outside the district will be admitted to the school.

“That means that people who are in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School district or Orange County, who are paying taxes, whose money is supposed to be going for local schools, could be paying for children who are coming from, I don’t know, maybe north Chatham,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “Who knows?”

“We will not know the students’ school or district of origin until applications are accepted,” Paradiso wrote. “Applications will not be accepted until Lee Scholars receives a charter.”

For Bowen, the performance data and as-yet-unanswered questions are “enough to make you ask why we’re doing this – give us some reasons.

“If you look at the track record of charter schools in general in this state, they’re not doing what they were supposed to do. … And then to have one that for 10 or 12 years hasn’t done a great job in five different locations in the state … I just don’t get it.”

“To me, there shouldn’t be things that feel uncomfortable,” said Haven-O’Donnell, an educator for 37 years. “It’s like I tell my students, if you have that ‘uh-oh’ feeling, you’ve got to respect it.”

  1. Chris Weaver

    Progressives should be open to “Choice” right?
    Options are bad?
    Racial gap?? someone should look at the gap…between CHCS….and Orange County schools…..
    “Where does a teacher go if she has a problem?” asked Ellinwood
    “In a public school, if you have a problem you take it through the regular channels,” Ellinwood said.
    Yes, and the papers have been FULL of how well THAT has been working…
    What happens in a Charter School is very similar to a Real World Job….
    Teachers may leave if conditions are not acceptable, AND they may be fired if THEIR performance is not acceptable.
    I understand real world scenarios are not well accepted by Progressives. Insular control, competitive exclusions, established conditioning and protectionist mentality abound….
    In the end….PARENTS should have Options, Parents are to make decisions as to what is right for their child and what is working for their child.
    To limit the Options for Parents removes CHOICE .
    I thought CHOICE (=liberty and freedom) was all the rage….
    Perhaps not.
    Chris Weaver