Charter schools can be a conundrum. When they apply, sponsoring groups may specify a location for their school, even a specific building.
By the time they're approved for a charter, however, that building may be off the market or too expensive. Or the group may decide for whatever reason to locate somewhere else. They're free to do so, as long as the new location is in the same county. The only requirement, under North Carolina's charter school law, is that the sponsors obtain a certificate of occupancy for an adequate structure somewhere in time for the start of the school year.
The same puzzle presents itself for staff. The applicants may list candidates for principal and teacher positions, but until they receive a charter—and a certificate of occupancy—they're given no money to hire anybody. By the time the funding comes through, those candidates may be otherwise employed. Or the applicants may hire an outside company, or EMO (educational management organization), to do the hiring. Some EMOs are for-profit. They're in it for the money.
The composition of the student body is another problem. Under state law, charter schools are supposed to enroll a student body that "reasonably reflect(s) the racial and ethnic composition of the general population" in the county. However, they're also required to accept all applicants and, if more students apply than there are seats available, put everyone into a lottery. What if the applicants, because of where the school is located, turn out to be predominantly white and affluent? Or low-income and African-American?
And what if the applicants want to open a charter school with programs—say, an emphasis on so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses—that duplicate courses offered by the traditional public schools?
For years, these questions weren't answered, but they didn't much matter either. That was because state law capped the number of charter schools at 100, and there were 100 charter schools already in operation.
But with the enactment last summer of Senate Bill 8, which removed the cap, an unlimited number of charter schools are possible, and the State Board of Education is required to approve or deny applicants using a law with no clear standards for deciding who should get a charter and who, if anyone, shouldn't.
Over the past month, the board reviewed nine applicants recommended for fast-track approval by a new body that SB-8 created, the Public Charter School Advisory Council. The council, dominated by charter-school leaders and proponents, culled the nine from 27 preliminary submissions. All sought permission to open new schools by the fall of 2012.
In the past, and starting again in April, board policy has required that applicants have a full year for planning between the time a charter is approved and when the school could open.
This time, though, the board—having been warned by Republican legislative leaders to either get some new charter schools open next fall or have their power to review applicants handed to the advisory council—adopted a one-time fast-track process. And last week it approved all nine applicants, eight unanimously and the ninth with just a single dissenting vote.
As a group, the nine applicants raised all of the issues named above.
Among them, for example, were three that were strongly opposed by the local boards of education, including two applications for schools in Durham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro. Should it matter that the local school board is opposed? Should it matter why?
The law doesn't say.
The new Research Triangle High School, likely to be located in Research Triangle Park, was viewed by the Durham Board of Education and Superintendent Eric Becoats as direct competition for STEM programs in several Durham schools.
The Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School, proposed as a K-8 school somewhere in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, is intended to focus on African-American students and closing the achievement gap. That's a goal Chapel Hill-Carrboro school leaders say they're pursuing but will be less able to achieve if their funding—and some of their best minority students—are pulled away to a charter school.
A third charter-school applicant approved in the Triangle, the proposed Triangle Math and Science Academy, wants to locate in Raleigh, possibly in a building on Moore Square formerly used by the charter Exploris Middle School. Wake County school leaders raised no objections to it.
State Board members, including Chairman Bill Harrison, acknowledged that the Durham school board raised "compelling issues" about the Research Triangle High School. But Harrison said he couldn't find any reason in the law to deny the application. He asked the advisory council to suggest when a local board's objections should count.
But Harrison emphasized that issues glossed over for the fast-track applicants will have to be met head-on when the board receives an expected 50 to 70 applications for new charters in the fall of 2013, a number that may be repeated in 2014 and for years to come.
Harrison called for "cooperation and collaboration" by charter schools as part of a single public school system. Jean Woolard, a former public school teacher and leader in the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), was more pointed. "We're not sure how long we can continue to fund two separate school systems," she said.
Some of the key issues the board members debated but laid aside in the fast-track process:
- 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. But if the school opens and, as is so commonly the case with the existing charter schools, they're anything but diverse, should they lose the charter?
State board member John Tate, a banker, asked the question in connection with an application from Martin County. (He cast the lone dissenting vote against it.) If, despite its marketing (or, worse, because of it), the interested students for a school are all white, or all non-white, he said, "you could end up, hypothetically, with a 99 percent affluent white school" or one that's all black.
- Transportation. Charter schools must accept all applicants, using a lottery if there are too many. But 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, the school is required to have a "plan" that keeps the lack of transportation from being a barrier to their attendance. But there's no standard for how user-friendly such a plan should be.
- Impact statements. Local districts are asked to submit them, Tate said, so presumably there's something they could say that the state board should consider. But what?
Many charter school proponents, including John Betterton, think that whatever the local districts say, they can't object to the competition. Betterton, principal of a Roxboro charter school and the chair of the advisory council, said that "in the charter school community, we think that competition improves the results for everyone."
Harrison disputed that, saying competition produces winners and losers. And he worried that when charter schools market themselves primarily to families with the most engaged parents, the losers are the other kids left behind in a weakened public system.
"We need not lose sight that we're talking about [how to educate] all kids," Harrison said. "And not all kids have been blessed with parents who are involved in their education the way they should be."