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The GOP's free-market reforms are aimed at public education

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It's Monday morning in the cafeteria at Maureen Joy Charter School, and the teachers stand in a circle at their morning meeting. Janice Smith hands out strips of school portraits that look like they were printed from a photo booth.

"I found myself fascinated by these photos," she says. "They are from 2003, from a Durham middle school. These kids are 22 now. Statistically speaking, where are they?"

Smith, 28, is the curriculum director of Maureen Joy, where 96 percent of students are minorities and 76 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunches.

Statistically speaking, most schools with such high concentrations of poverty don't perform well.

"How many of those kids are starting law school or a teaching career?" Smith asks, looking at the photos. "How many of them are still here in Durham and never graduated high school? Someone was shot near my house the other day. Who was shot and who was the shooter? I'm blown away by thinking about where these kids are."

Smith knows that affluent students are far more likely to read on grade level and graduate high school. She knows that for those who don't graduate, their career and life options are more limited.

"These are the results that need to drive your work today, not test scores," she says.

At Joy, students and teachers are held to high standards and discipline is strict. There is no tenure; the teachers who produce the best results get bonuses. Economically disadvantaged students who attend Joy perform significantly better in reading and math than their counterparts in the rest of Durham.

But despite Joy's success, Smith says unleashing a flood of charter schools and vouchers onto the market won't fix education. "The answer has to come from public schools," she says.

Republicans hope to extract that answer by exposing public schools to a large dose of free-market principles; principles which, when applied to public education, can mean some children win and others lose.

At least seven bills are moving through the Legislature that would divert money from public schools to private hands, eliminate teacher tenure, instill performance pay and potentially increase class sizes in public schools. As for charters, they would have less accountability to local school boards; in effect, they would be deregulated.

Introducing all the reform bills at once is a national strategy, not a state one. A conservative think tank the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) developed the plan, and over the past two years, it has been deployed in Republican-controlled states.

ALEC's goal is to promote "limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty," according to its website. The organization writes conservative legislation, which state lawmakers can use in their home states. Many major corporations sponsor ALEC: Duke Energy, ExxonMobil, Bayer, AT&T, Cracker Barrel and Koch Industries are just a few of the organization's current members, according to the Center for Media and Democracy.

Ramming through the education reforms is like a game of whack-a-mole. "If all the moles pop up at once, there is no way the person [i.e. progressive education advocates] with the mallet can get them all," reads an ALEC strategy guide on education policy.

"Instead of being forthright and aggregating all of the reforms into one education bill, they are making it difficult to see," says Patty Williams of Public Schools First NC, an organization that advocates for progressive education policy. "It's just a way of not being transparent to the public. We should be proposing laws in a way that's easy to understand."

A school voucher bill, HB 994, introduced Tuesday and originated in the office of Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, is the centerpiece of conservative education bills. Not only does the bill come straight from the ALEC playbook, Stam, like many other North Carolina lawmakers, is a member of ALEC.

Stam isn't a primary sponsor of the voucher bill, but he made clear in an interview with Carolina Journal that the legislation originated in his office. He refused to be interviewed by INDY Week for this story.

Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, an African-American, is sponsoring the bill, which would provide up to $4,200 for families below a certain income level to attend a private school. The typical conservative line is that vouchers and expanded charter options provide needed choice in a system where one size doesn't fit all.

But Brandon's defense of vouchers isn't pre-packaged; it's nearly visceral. He is defying most of his party and the black caucus, because he sees vouchers as a way out of poverty for children in his district.

"I've been around my district knocking on doors in areas with 85, 95 percent poverty," Brandon says. "If I can get some of those children out, even if it's with a system promoted by Republicans, I'm going to do it."

But it's unclear whether all the children Brandon refers to will get real access to vouchers. The voucher can only pay up to 90 percent of a child's tuition. And according to statistics from the conservative John Locke Foundation, the average private school tuition for elementary, middle and high schools is $4,889, $5,410 and $5,916, respectively.

"If you have to pay one dollar, that automatically means some families won't be able to participate," Brandon acknowledges.

Florida had a voucher program similar to the one being introduced in North Carolina. It was struck down in the court system, because the Florida Constitution requires a "uniform" education for all students. North Carolina has a similar constitutional provision, which would allow for similar challenges.

Durham County provides a lens into what can happen to a system already flush with choice.

Charter schools represent roughly 4 percent of the market share in North Carolina. But in Durham, charters' share is more than three times greater, with nearly 15 percent of the market.

Board members with Durham Public Schools have suggested this has led denser concentrations of economically disadvantaged students in the public system over the past decade.

"We've started to think about Durham as having two separate but unequal school districts," says Durham school board member Natalie Beyer.

She and other board members support a moratorium on new charter schools in the county. But the cap on charter schools was lifted in 2011 and 4 new charters have applied to open in Durham in 2014.

"It would drastically impact the system," says Beyer. The loss of funding "would force us to eliminate programs."

DPS board members are not the only ones who support a moratorium on new charter schools.

"I think we're at the saturation point," says Carl Forsyth, managing director of Voyager Academy charter school in Durham. Voyager has 1,200 students in its elementary, middle and high schools.

Forsyth and other charter leaders are working with DPS to draft a statement of understanding, which will lay out the county's goals for how to proceed with charters.

"You have to consider what the market can bear," he says. "If we added more charters, the chances of all schools being successful would be less."

Beyer agrees. She believes charters have a place in the traditional public system, but that adding new ones (as well as vouchers) in Durham would exacerbate an unequal system.

Much of Durham's inequality cuts along racial lines. Voyager's student body, for instance, is 75 percent white, and only a small percentage of student's receive free and reduced lunches. Durham Public Schools, on the whole, are nearly the reverse—20 percent white, 62 percent eligible for free and reduced lunches.

And white students have greater access to charter schools than their Latino counterparts. White students make up 37 percent of the charter system but just 19 percent of Durham Public Schools. Hispanic students, on the other hand, represent just 9 percent of the charter population while holding a 24 percent share of the DPS population, according to Department of Public Instruction data. The percentage of black students is steady at roughly 50 percent in both charter and traditional public schools.

State law mandates that charters reflect the diversity of their communities, but Duke University research suggests that charters tend to have the opposite effect on diversity throughout the state.

"Charter schools are likely to lead to racial and economic segregation of students," says Helen Ladd, a lead researcher in the Duke study.

The skewed percentages aren't because charters actively seek white or affluent students. Any student can apply to a charter, and selection is based on a blind lottery. But charters can apply academic restrictions, which disqualify some applicants.

Access is also limited at charters that choose not to provide free and reduced lunches and transportation. Voyager, for instance, only began offering free and reduced lunches this year, according to DPI, and it still doesn't have buses.

However, Forsyth says the school is required in its bylaws to find transportation, whether by carpool or teacher transport, for any family that can't provide it themselves.

Nonetheless, Maureen Joy Principal Alex Quigley believes the lack of these services contributes to unequal access. He says the services should be mandated by state law. But the Charter School Board bill working its way through the Senate would place fewer, not more, restrictions on charters.

In small counties, the saturation point, which many believe Durham has reached, can happen quickly. When Arapahoe Charter School opened in Pamlico County in 1996, it immediately consumed 50 percent of the market in a county with just one K-12 school.

"It hurt us real bad," says George Martin, who served on the Pamlico County school board from 1996 to 2012. "Things have changed, programs have been dropped" because of the loss of funding that came with a loss of students.

The county's superintendent filed a report with North Carolina's charter school advisory board earlier this year, asking that Arapahoe be forbidden from expanding to the 10th grade.

It's not easy to unwrap the methods that work from those that don't. Charter schools, such as Joy, have made significant steps toward closing the achievement gap. But large-scale free-market initiatives can lead to inequality.

Affluent students and involved families gravitate toward charter and private options, which are funded by public vouchers. With the loss of students, public schools lose money, which can lead to the loss of programs. At a tipping point, public schools can fail with little possibility of rebounding.

"The notion that we are going to set up all these charter schools with reckless abandon and let some fail and some succeed and introduce vouchers at the same time is very disruptive to the education system in a way that is hard to recover from," says Helen Ladd, the researcher at Duke.

She also points to the homeschool tax credit as a shift toward privatization.

Ladd researched a choice-based school system that was set up in New Zealand in the 1980s. She says the competition meant that some schools were always in a period of what she calls "downward spiral."

As portions of low-income families in some public schools became denser, and as those schools lost funding and programming, it became more difficult to keep good teachers in the schools.

Ladd says that assigning schools a letter grade in districts that have reached the tipping point will contribute to the brain drain of teachers and students from the public system.

In other states that passed ALEC-inspired legislation, the school's grade has been used to allow all families, not just low- and middle-income ones, access to private school vouchers.

Ladd admits that the achievement gap between affluent and poor students, as well as white and black students, is pervasive and persistent in the public school system.

"I'm not saying there aren't losers in the public school system now," she says. "But we have to bolster what we have."

The Wake County school district has few charters. It has used savings to insulate itself from many budget cuts and has, as Ladd suggests, used money to bolster public schools.

At four elementary schools with high concentrations of poverty, Wake applied for federal grants and created what it calls "renaissance" programs. Each school was allocated an additional $1 million. The schools were given more latitude in curriculum, more freedom to hire and fire teachers (though they did not eliminate tenure) and instituted performance pay—all measures that have also been implemented at Joy charter as well as many other high-poverty schools across the country.

In their first year of existence, three out of those four renaissance schools in Wake County achieved significant gains in performance; the other achieved moderate gains.

Many advocates, including Ladd, believe one key to bolstering public education is to restore spending. In the short term, public education spending has been hurt drastically by the recession. But over the past 40 years, North Carolina has dedicated a smaller part of its budget to public education. In 1970 North Carolina spent 53 percent of its budget on public education. That figure is now 39 percent.

"Viewed one at time, the changes to public education we are seeing may not look that big," says Ladd. "But viewed together they suggest the state may be losing its way in education policy. We aren't going to fix the problems we have by creating a two-tier public education system."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Class dismissed."

Correction: The Opportunity Scholarship Act is House Bill 944 (not 994).

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