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Drive to lift charter school cap gains ground
State-mandated maximum is 100
 
Published Thursday, January 27, 2011 8:00 am
by Sommer Brokaw, For The Charlotte Post

Since North Carolina’s 100-school cap on charter schools was reached in 2001, supporters have unsuccessfully lobbied to lift it. But their efforts are gaining new allies as a Republican majority takes over the General Assembly.

Charter schools are  publicly funded. However, unlike traditional public schools, they have a community board that sets policies instead of a local school board.

PHOTO/PAUL WILLIAMS III
Sugar Creek Charter School teacher Mechelle Vaughn (right) leads students during reading session on Tuesday. N.C. lawmakers and education advocates are pushing for an increase in the state’s charter school limit.

The movement for charter schools in North Carolina dates back to the mid-1990s, when lawmakers approved the Charter School Act allowing any person, group or nonprofit organization to form a charter school subject to state Board of Education approval. Although charter schools were freed from many bureaucratic restraints they were still required to administer standardized state tests. The CSA capped the number of charter schools at 100.


It has been controversial ever since.


Conservatives and supporters say charters bring freedom of choice to families who could not afford a private school education allowing for growth, flexibility, and innovation.


“If we say children aren’t successful because they come from families that are low income, if we say that’s the reason they’re not successful then what we’ve said essentially is it is something we can’t fix,” said Cheryl Turner, CEO and director of Sugar Creek Charter School in Charlotte. “But if we say children being successful is based on what we do we have control over this. This is something we can fix.”

Sugar Creek Charter School has 675 students – 95 percent of them are African American and 87 percent of them are on free and reduced lunch, which is generally used to gauge poverty levels.

Turner said the goal is for 97 percent of students to be proficient overall. Based on current standardized test scores, 73 percent are proficient; math proficiency was 83 percent, and reading was 66 percent. Ten years ago, 26.1 percent were proficient overall. “We really struggled for awhile,” she said. “It wasn’t until we decided that we were going to put it in our control that it started to go up steadily. The school’s motto is “whatever it takes.’ We haven’t found the magic bullet, and it’s always a work in progress, but I really feel like with that attitude it will happen.”

“If you want your children to get the best start possible put them in Sugar Creek,” added Sharon Young, a parent of three children in Sugar Creek and one that has graduated. “In traditional schools, I think if they don’t excel they don’t push them, they have to stay back, but here they’re able to move on and keep pace at their own learning level.”
Critics and progressives have raised concern about the racial imbalance of many of the schools, the lack of accountability, and a lack of evidence that they’re working.

Chris Fitzsimon, a progressive public policy analyst and author of the Fitzsimon Report, said a national study conducted in 2009 by Stanford University and funded by pro-charter foundations, showed mixed results at best. The survey found that 17 percent of charter schools reported gains greater than traditional public schools, 37 percent showed gains that were worse, and 46 percent were about the same. Similar mixed results were found specifically in the study’s look at North Carolina.
Jordan Shaw, a spokesperson for House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg), said that part of his campaign platform was to lift or eliminate the cap on charter schools, and he’ll try to pursue that this session convening on Jan. 26.

“We’re optimistic,” Shaw said. “We have a lot of priorities this session with the economy in trying to foster job development. Nothing’s higher priority than that, but when we look at what else is out there we are also going to have other priorities and this is one of them,” he added. “We’re very proud of our public education system, but we’re also aware that other choices and other options should be available to parents and teachers.” 

Former opponents like the N.C. School Boards Association and the N.C. Association of Educators have now joined conservatives in support for lifting the cap. The NCSBA is in favor of lifting it with some qualifiers, and the NCAE recently gave their endorsement. 

“I wish I could say the reason we have more support now is solely based on evidence or that 20,000 people are on a waiting list to go to charter schools or in the polling that 70 to 80 percent of people are in favor of them, but unfortunately I do believe a lot of this is tied to recent elections,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “We have a Republican Party that has campaigned hard to say they’re going to eliminate the cap, and they’re going to make that one of their first priorities.”

North Carolina’s charter school law ranked number 32 for the second year in a row, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ second annual ranking of the country’s 41 charter school laws. The state received a poor ranking due to a lack of fairness in equitable funding, lack of accountability for performance, and failure to lift the cap.

“We need to make sure we maximize the moment this upcoming session to make sure that we have the right policy in place for charter schools to thrive,” Allison said. “If they’re not doing well then they should be shut down, but we shouldn’t penalize those schools that are doing well.”

Eddie Goodall, president of N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools, agreed that there should be more accountability, and he added that it should be measured by improvement in school performance in a given year. 

“The cap is one of the main problems for our state, but there are many more things we want to do. We want an independent charter school commission to oversee charter schools to make sure we have effective and quality charter schools,” he said.

“The only kind of cap there should be is a quality cap.”

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