After deflating charter school report, NC must confront the failures of school choice

After deflating charter school report, NC must confront the failures of school choice

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Surrounded by the labyrinthine performance metrics of North Carolina’s charter school sector, Comment 12, a Pepto Bismol-colored side note to a 2016 report for the North Carolina legislature, is easy to overlook.

The report dryly notes that, while charters may be more likely to earn an “A” than traditional schools, they’re more likely to earn an “F” as well, fitting for a K-12 movement often argued in the extremes.

But Comment 12, the cherry on top, a marvel of perhaps unintentional wryness, adds this revealing postscript: 

“This explanation has been edited, per (Charter School Advisory Board) suggestion, to accentuate the positive; the content of the explanation has not changed since the prior draft.”

The charter advisory boardcomposed of charter advocates and charter operators handpicked, of course, by the charter advocates in the state legislature – has a reputation for its hydra-like connections with the charter industry. 

One CSAB member belched flames later in 2016 when members of the State Board of Education – appointees of the governor, many of them career educators, local school board members and state leaders – clamped down on new charters after a rash of closures. 

“Don’t get me started about public charter school no-nothings (sic) on the NC State Board of Education,” the CSAB member wrote in an email to Policy Watch. “The temerity and ignorance of those soulless SOB’s (sic) presuming to know better than the NC Charter School Advisory Board with its diversity of knowledge and experience in this area.”

But Comment 12, better than that board member’s fire and fury, captures North Carolina’s school choice boondoggle and its P.R. manipulations in all of its absurdity.

Charter school advocates in North Carolina enjoy carte blanche with their powerful allies in the state legislature, but their job is often to shape a narrative of school choice, one that casts the movement as standing up to the bullies in the traditional public schools. Control of narrative, after all, is half the battle.   

But a new frame isn’t going to make this picture any prettier. A draft report from the state charter office this week says that, while charters may be financially thriving in North Carolina, their academic performance has declined.

This draft report doesn’t take up demographics – a paramount concern when it comes to school choice – but its authors wrote that, since the 2014-2015 school year, the percentage of charters meeting or exceeding expected growth standards has ticked downward every year, from 73.4 percent to 68.7 percent in 2017-2018, the most recent year measured in the report. And in each of those four years, charters meeting or exceeding growth fell short of the 75 percent goal set by the state.

Both sides will likely use the report to feed their narrative, and traditional schools have more than their fair share of dilemmas in this year’s performance reports. But it is the charter operators – who have consistently boasted about their academic pedigree while serving a population less likely to struggle in the classroom – who should have more explaining to do with North Carolina lawmakers, if those lawmakers cared to listen. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest is one of North Carolina’s most outspoken school choice backers.


Education is not, or at least it shouldn’t be, a public relations battle, but it is. The traditional public school stalwarts, whose “Red for Ed” slogan is a ubiquitous mantra today, understand that, as does North Carolina’s Republican lieutenant governor, Dan Forest.    

In 2016, the same year the CSAB melted down over charter policy, Forest – inveterate school choice champion and, by virtue of his office, a member of the State Board of Education – blew his top over a state charter report he deemed overly “negative.” 

The report earned Forest’s ire because its authors in the Office of Charter Schools deigned to detail charters’ troublesome demographics: whiter, more affluent, and significantly less likely to enroll Latinx students and students with disabilities. 

These are points worth spitballing, but the report, in its colorless language, hardly did so, even if the state law, which exempts charters from providing transportation and free or reduced lunch to students, is a recipe for stratification. 

Our leaders could not achieve a more tidy, purgatorial system of “haves” and “have-nots” if they tried, which, in some cases, they probably did. It should not be forgotten that school choice, no matter its inspirational messaging about parental freedom, germinated when white parents sought to buck the federal government’s forced desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education

A 1983 Oval Office meet between President Reagan and Jerry Falwell

And some of school choice’s seminal crusaders were conservative evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, powerful supporters of a breed of Christian private schools that, under the IRS threat of stripping their tax-exempt status, were forced to eventually answer for the de facto “whites only” academies that spread like fungus after the Brown decision.

Among those schools, South Carolina’s Bob Jones University, defied the IRS in 1970, declaring that it would not admit Black students. To do otherwise would infringe upon their religious freedom, they claimed.  

When the school finally caved in 1975, the author and historian Randall Balmer wrote that it agreed to admit Black students, but – fearing interracial relationships – refused to admit unmarried Black students. 

All movements grow and progress. The school choice disciples of 2019 would not wish to be associated with such mulish, racist origins, just as the Democrats of 2019 would hardly like to be associated with the Democrats of the Reconstruction South, who spearheaded Jim Crow’s brutal subjugation of former slaves and their descendants. 

The racial provocations of the school choice movement are not quite so animated in North Carolina today. Yet it is not far from many minds. Indeed, when Republican legislators eagerly approved an allowance last year for municipal charter schools in several predominantly white Charlotte suburban towns, some saw the past made present.  

“This proves what the old folks say, everything old is new again,” state Rep. Amos Quick, a High Point pastor, opined then. 

It’s inconceivable that, in 1996, when a bipartisan troop of North Carolina lawmakers opened the state to charters – capping their number at 100 – that they imagined themselves the architects of such a bitter civil war among educators. 

In those days, school choice in all its iterations – charters, private schools, home schools – was not such a litmus test in North Carolina, a sign of partisan affiliation or a conservative cause célèbre as it is in 2019. 

School choice was the barnacle; traditional public schools the whale. But today, eight years after state lawmakers lifted the charter cap, institutions of school choice make up about 20 percent of the whale

The traditional school population is declining, and in some counties, faced with the cherry picking of prominent nearby charters, local boards of education have no choice but to shutter schools.

Ditching the competing narratives over school choice’s growth requires a few simple questions: 

Are charters good for students? Are charters good for North Carolina? 

The answers to these two salient questions are fairly straightforward:

  1. It depends on what charter a student attends. Some, based on performance data, appear to be soaring. Others are a disaster. 
  2. Yet, in their current configuration, charters are, most assuredly, not good for North Carolina. They have critically destabilized some school systems, gouged deep holes in traditional school budgets, and exacerbated racial and economic segregation.

North Carolina legislative leaders might be inclined to ask a third question: Are charters good for charter operators and the management organizations behind them? 

Yet how private operators make their money – and, in the U.S., in North Carolina, they often do, hand over fist – is not the province of state legislators wielding public tax dollars, no matter the deep pockets of lusty school choice donors. 

Perhaps the lawmakers of 1996 envisioned charters and school choice in a symbiotic relationship with traditional schools, both sides imparting benefits to the other, but they have taken on a parasitic relationship in modern North Carolina. 

Indeed, state legislators, rather than funding charters as a supplementary “laboratory of innovation” for traditional schools, as if they can coexist with traditional schools, have created a Byzantine tug of war with each miserly budget session. 

They have trusted our students to the free will of the market, a fickle, capricious and uncaring thing. They have made our schools, our students, into unwilling participants in a rat race. And, in the process, they have made North Carolinians, and the public schools they’ve taken pride in, saps, something that seems to soak in every time more than 20,000 educators swarm the state Capitol to demand change.

It will take more than a few press releases to change that narrative.