by Bob Geary
If anyone doubted that the State Board of Education intends to rubber-stamp the nine fast-track charter school applicants recommended for approval by the Public Charter School Advisory Council, I'd say their doubts were dispelled today. Board members, meeting as a committee, asked two or three pointed questions about charter schools in general. But when it came to the nine specific applications, most of them drew no questions at all — and the zero-questions category included the controversial Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School in Chapel Hill-Carrboro.
The full board will vote on the nine at its regular meeting tomorrow (Thursday) morning. Assuming they're approved, they'll be allowed to open in the 2012-13 school year — in six or seven months, in other words.
Three of the nine applications are for schools in the Triangle. Two of the three, the Lee school and the proposed Research Triangle High School, are strongly opposed by the local school board — the Chapel Hill-Carrboro board and the Durham County board, respectively. The third, the Triangle Math and Science Academy, is trying to open in Raleigh; the Wake school board has taken no position on it.
Board Chairman Bill Harrison, reflecting his members' reluctance to fight the General Assembly insistence that there be more charter schools by September, took the position that while the CH-C and Durham boards raised important issues in their official impact statements, the state board isn't able to consider those issues under existing law.
Or, to be more precise, what Harrison said is that the state board isn't going to consider them in these nine cases, but it may choose to do so when the expected 50-70 additional applications arrive in April for charters starting in the 2013-14 school year.
Before the state board decides whether — or how — to judge the issues the local districts raised, however, it wants advice from the charter schools council, Harrison said. That's the group created by the General Assembly last year when it lifted the cap that previously limited the state to 100 charter schools in all.
The council is dominated by members from, as its chairman John Betterton called it today, "the charter school community."
What are the issues that should be considered but, for the nine, won't be?
Number one is the diversity of a charter school's population. All applicants submit a marketing plan and, by and large, all vow to comb the landscape for a diverse group of students. OK, but what happens if the school opens and, as is so commonly the case with the existing charter schools, they're anything but diverse?
State board member John Tate, a banker, asked the question today, apropos of no school in particular. The applicants go out and market themselves, Tate said, and if more students want to attend than the school can take, it's required to hold a lottery. But if the interested students are all white, or all non-white, he said, "You could end up, hypothetically, with a 99 percent affluent white school" ... or with a 99 percent non-white school.
Yes, that's true, said Joel Medley, director of the state Office of Charter Schools. Medley said one charter school, concerned that it wasn't drawing from a diverse student pool, wanted to alter its lottery to include some set-aside seats. But the law doesn't allow set-asides, Medley said.
What's missing is any standard by which to judge the glittering generalities of an applicant's marketing plan or, after the school is open, to judge whether its plan produced diversity or not.
Under state law, a charter school's students are supposed to be as diverse as the district it's in within one year of opening. Somehow, though, the state has taken to interpreting a rather specific provision of the law — which includes the word "shall" — to have little or no practical meaning.
The law states:
Within one year after the charter school begins operation, the population of the school shall reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the general population residing within the local school administrative unit in which the school is located or the racial and ethnic composition of the special population that the school seeks to serve residing within the local school administrative unit in which the school is located.
Number two is transportation. In theory, a charter school must accept all applicants, using a lottery if there are too many. But in practice, charter schools aren't required to offer transportation, meaning that students who live far away probably won't apply. If they do and are accepted, Medley said, the school is required to have a "plan" that keeps the lack of transportation from being a barrier to attendance.
What's missing is any standard for what such a "plan" should — or must — include.
Number three is the whole subject of impact statements. Local districts are asked to submit them, so presumably there's something they could say about a charter school applicant that would register with the state board. But what?
Harrison said Durham's statement was "very compelling" about how the Research Triangle HS would undermine Durham's ability to offer STEM (science, tech, engineering and math) programs in its own schools — and about the fact that Durham has more charter schools already (and loses more students and money to them) than any other district in the state.
But in the next breath, he said he didn't know whether or how to weigh these issues, and he's asked the charter schools advisory council to tell him.
Board member Chris Green suggested that, if Durham has ample STEM programs, the Research Triangle HS should fail the test in the law that a charter school be "innovative" and meet a need that is otherwise unmet in the district.
But Harrison said the bottom line for him is, if enough parents choose the RTHS for their kids, then the need for it has been demonstrated.