Throughout North Carolina, charter schools are creating racial imbalances. One Durham charter wants to be part of the solution.
May 16 was a day for sign-makers in Raleigh, and amid the red shirts and the vuvuzela blasts, teachers gathered with countless foam cores that asked "WTF: Where's The Funding?" and enlisted Ms. Frizzle from Magic School Bus to convey their demands. But John Heffernan, the director of Durham's Central Park School for Children, marched holding a simple, weather-worn poster. "We're a Charter," it said, "for Accountability, Collaboration, Equity."
"It's not just symbolic," Heffernan says. "It's actually really important, immediate work that, if we're to ensure greater health for our children here, we can't sit on the sidelines."
That Heffernan's presence and modest sign were statements enough reflects the strained relationship between charters and traditional public schools in North Carolina.
At least forty-two school districts across the state closed for the day, including Durham Public Schools, but only three of the state's 173 charter schools took similar action, says Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools. And while Dillingham notes that she'll "always be pro-teacher," she also says that "the organizer of the rally was [the North Carolina Association of Educators]. And NCAE has an anti-charter agenda."
Heffernan's Central Park School for Children was one of the three to close. It announced its decision on May 2, a few hours before DPS decided that all of its schools would do likewise.
"Other people have been drawing the dividing lines, and have been just pitting charter schools and public schools against each other," says Morgan Carney, a sixth-grade teacher at CPSC. "We should be trying to draw the line for what we stand for."
Leading up to May 16, Carney and Taylor Schmidt, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, wrote a spirited Herald Sun op-ed explaining CPSC's action. They described North Carolina's charter school system as "a Trojan Horse for dismantling public schools," labeled CPSC and its peer charters as culpable in the underfunding of public schools and the resegregation of the education system, and took a stand against privatization, vouchers, and for-profit schools.
"Once schools like Central Park step into the game, it becomes super clear that this isn't charter schools versus public schools and fighting over who gets the money," says Lisa McCool-Grime, the high school director of the Durham Association of Educators, the local branch of the NCAE. "This is really about people who care about public education and students and people who don't."
The question now is how CPSC's talk translates to action. "Driving back from Raleigh, staring out the window, that's what was on all of our minds," says Schmidt. "What comes next?"
Charter schools—taxpayer-funded institutions that have leeway to experiment with curriculum and teaching methods—first arose in North Carolina in 1996; in 2011, the General Assembly voted to remove the one-hundred-school statewide cap, sparking a bloom of new charters.
While proponents argue that the choice they provide—along with the opportunity for innovation—enables better student outcomes, social scientists have recently begun to study their adverse effects. A 2015 paper from Duke found that North Carolina's charters were "increasingly serving the interests of relatively able white students in racially imbalanced schools," and a 2018 analysis of six North Carolina school districts examined how the presence of charters affected public school funding: in Durham, public school services were reduced by $500–$700 per pupil.
The problem charters present, explains Helen Ladd, a Duke professor who co-authored both papers, is "how to reconcile the private interests of families or individual schools—and those are real interests—with the public or collective interest." A school's mission may not overlap with the goals of parents or those of the greater region; such divergent aims can lead to deleterious outcomes.
CPSC saw that firsthand. "We were becoming a vehicle, in many ways, for class and for white flight," says Heffernan, who took over as the school's director in 2009.
The school changed in response, more intentionally pursuing diversity. In 2013, it added a weighted lottery system (a first in the state) that advantaged applicants who qualified for free or low-cost lunch. But within a choice-based system, even a school that offers an "unapologetically progressive education"—"our goal is to have kindergartners talking about race," Schmidt notes—falls short of demographics on par with those of DPS. "We can weight [the lottery] all day long, but we're still going to have an outrageous amount of applications coming from the suburbs," he says.
It's in light of such inequities, local and statewide, that Schmidt and Carney wrote the op-ed to challenge their peer charters—and CPSC itself—to do more. "We're not asking you to shut down your entire system," says Schmidt, "but we have to look for solutions."
Educators on both fronts support more collaboration: the original vision of the charter model was to enable experiments, allowing newly discovered methods to proliferate throughout all schools.
But the question remains as to how that teamwork will happen. Earlier this decade, the DPS Board of Education approved a Vision for Quality Public Schools in Durham that outlined how Durham's public schools could work with its charters, but the charters never signed on. According to members of that school board, the hesitation surrounded language stating that "all of our public schools will share equally in this challenge to educate our impoverished children."
Carl Forsyth, the former managing director of Voyager Academy who organized this effort on the charters' side, says in an email that he does not recall that language being a "contributing factor as to why the Vision Statement was not adopted."
To many, pitting charters against traditional schools is not an accident but a reflection of how charters were initially implemented. The General Assembly created the charter system but didn't establish the infrastructure that would allow the two groups to work together, so the question of "how to create authentic collaboration that's meaningful" was passed off to local school districts, says McCool-Grime. "It's not an easy tool to tax an already-burdened school system with."
What's especially exciting about CPSC's message, McCool-Grime says, is that the school is echoing what public school educators have been saying for many years. By denouncing the system it participates in and stepping out, the school can be a liaison to other, similarly minded charters. As the DAE continues to push for greater accountability for charters that aren't innovating, Central Park—as a charter itself—can help identify appropriate standards that wouldn't inhibit existing good work in those schools.
Maybe the boldest idea for forging a meaningful bond between the two school groups is the final bullet point in Carney and Schmidt's op-ed. For charters that manage to innovate and reach stability, they want to find ways to reintegrate with public schools.
"I think the fact that that's actually a thing that someone is saying aloud is a profound step forward," says Bryan Proffitt, president of the DAE.
Given the persistent narrative is that only charters can innovate, Proffitt notes abundant evidence of the flexibility of Durham Public Schools: Southwest Elementary has a dual-language immersion program; Northern High School has a culinary-arts program; numerous elementary schools have Community Schools programs, which rely on the kind of localized decision-making one might find in a successful charter.
"So I think those things point to: Why couldn't Central Park keep the things that it does that makes it unique, but also be part of the system?" says Proffitt.
It's the sort of idea that these educators describe as both radical and common sense. And perhaps that's what it will take to solve the ongoing educational divide.
"If we really want to have justice for our kids in education, then we need to retool our thinking," Schmidt says. "Because it's clear that this isn't working."