N&O forum will explore promise, concerns of charter schools in NC

Charter schools started in North Carolina, as they did across the nation, as laboratories for testing ideas for improving education. But now the special schools – publicly funded, but privately run – are testing something else. They are challenging our common commitment to offering all children a fair opportunity at a sound, basic education.

Charter schools, approved by the General Assembly in 1996 with a 100-school cap, have multiplied quickly since Republicans took over the legislature and lifted the cap in 2011. The number of charters has risen from 34 in 1997 to 173 today with 20 more approved to open in 2018. The schools are receiving more than $500 million in public funds.

The uneven educational performance of charter schools and the implications of North Carolina encouraging their proliferation are explored in depth in the recent News & Observer series: “NC’s Charter School Boom.” The series, published last week and reported by Jane Stancill, Lynn Bonner and David Raynor, shows that charter schools have mixed academic results, but clear patterns of segregation.

It also shows they are increasingly being started by companies rather than parents and educators with a distinctive mission for a school. You can read the series at newsobserver.com

The N&O and ABC 11 will host a public discussion of the series and charter schools in general at our next Community Voices forum: “Charter schools in North Carolina: How are they working and where are they going?” To register for the free event to be held at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 30, at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, go to: eventbrite.com

The charter school debate is intensifying as the number and types of charters grow, but there is not really any dispute about the charter concept itself.

Most educators agree that the flexibility and focus of the schools encourage innovation and help students who often are not adequately served in traditional public schools – especially students from low-income backgrounds and gifted students.

Where the dispute arises is in the application of the charter concept. What was once a small subset of public education is being pushed by conservatives such as North Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Republican leaders in the state House and Senate. For them, charters are not laboratories for public education, but an alternative to what they call “government schools.” They want to use public funds to further a political agenda that would privatize and polarize public schools.

That is the concern with charter schools. It’s not the concept, it’s how that concept might be exploited at the expense of traditional public schools.

Our five-person panel includes supporters of charter schools as a needed and proven option and those who worry about the effectiveness of most charters and how their proliferation may undermine traditional public schools. The panelists are:

Natalie Beyer has been a member of the Durham Board of Education since 2010. She attended public schools in Durham.

Natalie Beyer

She is a founding member of Parents Across America and a volunteer board member of Public Schools First NC, both grassroots organizations working to strengthen public schools.

Lisa Gordon Stella is a Durham attorney and co-chair of the NC Association of Public Charter Schools. She is a former vice president of the Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham.

Lisa Gordon Stella

Her law practice is focused on advising charter schools, community-based nonprofits and small businesses. She is also co-founder of the Durham Charter Collaborative, which brings Durham charter school leaders together.

Pamela Blizzard led the 2012 founding of Research Triangle High School, a charter school.

Pamela Blizzard

Previously, she led the founding team for Raleigh Charter High School, developing and implementing the educational and operational plans for the school, which is now regularly ranked in the top 25 schools in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

Helen F. Ladd is the Susan B. King Professor Emerita of Public Policy and Economics at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Her education research has focused on school finance, accountability and parental choice in both North Carolina and also in other countries.

Helen Ladd

She has been a visiting researcher in New Zealand, South Africa, the Netherlands and England, and is a member of the National Academy of Education.

Tawannah G. Allen is an associate professor of Educational Leadership in the School of Education at High Point University.

A former kindergarten teacher in Durham and administrator with Wake County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, Allen is also a member of Bridges2Success, a research and development lab comprised of scholars who are engaged in basic and applied research, focusing on the plight of young men and boys of color.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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