The most telling moment of Monday night’s heated debate on the House floor about charter schools was not the emotional speech by Democratic Representative Marcus Brandon in support of the legislation that was fiercely opposed by his fellow Democrats.
It was the vote on an amendment by Rep. Bill Owens that would have simply expanded the current cap on the number of charter schools from 100 to 150. The House defeated that proposal with all but a handful of Republicans voting against it.
Republicans ran for office promising to lift the cap on charter schools and that is what Owens’ amendment would have done. But many of the bill’s supporters are not just interested in lifting the cap, regardless of what they told the voters.
They want to remake public schools in North Carolina by creating an unlimited, unaccountable parallel system. That’s what the charter bill approved by the House Monday begins to set up.
It includes weak provisions about providing food and transportation to low income students and it makes a half-hearted attempt to ensure diversity, but they are afterthoughts.
The bill even allows for profit companies to create mostly unregulated virtual charter schools if they have an office anywhere in North Carolina.
House Majority Leader Paul Stam said earlier this year that his dream is that all schools become charters and he has introduced a voucher bill that would provide a tax credit for parents that home school their children or send them to a private or religious school.
One of the advocacy groups most often quoted in support of the charter school bill is Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a group explicitly created to push for the privatization of schools with vouchers and tax credits.
That’s why the amendment to simply lift the cap failed. That’s not what the charter school bill is really about. And it’s what made Brandon’s passionate plea for it so confusing.
He told the hushed House that 41 percent of African-American males do not graduate from high school and that all the potential problems with charters cited by his fellow Democrats are already part of the public school experience in his Greensboro district, resegregated schools, high poverty schools, low achieving schools.
Brandon’s frustration is understandable. The graduation rate of African-American students in North Carolina is a scandal. So is the existence of segregated, high poverty schools.
But Brandon’s desperation has led him to join forces with politicians who are not bothered by segregation, who see no problem with low-income Black kids packed into poor schools while the middle class white students have their own school, public, private, or charter, all supported by public money.
Brandon stood with people who talk openly of firing teacher assistants who help students in early grades learn how to read, lawmakers who list as a budget option abolishing preschool programs that help make sure children arrive at school ready to learn.
And he stood with charter school advocates who can’t produce one credible piece of evidence that charter schools do a better job educating at-risk students than traditional public schools. Most studies find they don’t do as well. A handful show they perform about the same.
The way to fix the problems in public schools is not to abandon them. It is to make sure there is a qualified, well-paid and well supported teacher in every classroom and a passionate and well-qualified principal running every school. It is to adequately fund the support services that students need, from school nurses to counselors.
And it is to finally acknowledge that since poverty remains one of the most powerful predictors of academic achievement, addressing poverty must be a central part of helping struggling children learn.
None of the charter school advocates mentioned poverty during the debate. They also didn’t mention their assault this year on programs that help poor families, from health care to preschool programs to low-interest loans at community colleges.
The charter school bill is clearly not about raising the cap. The vote on the Owens’ amendment made that clear.
It is about weakening and ultimately replacing public schools with a private, unaccountable system.
And surely that’s not what the voters or Rep. Brandon really want.