Education
4:15 pm
Mon October 7, 2013

Are Charter Schools A Threat to Traditional Public Schools?

The push for more competition and school choice in North Carolina is changing the state’s education landscape.

In 2011, state lawmakers voted to lift the 100-school cap on charter schools, allowing an unlimited number of tax-supported, independent schools. Now education officials say as many as 170 new charter schools could open in the Tar Heel state in 2015.

Wendy Barajas, principal at Forsyth Academy in Winston-Salem, talks with students about projects they working on in the classroom. Forsyth Academy is a charter school that serves students in grades K-8.
Credit Keri Brown

On a busy Wednesday morning at Forsyth Academy in Winston-Salem, students and parents rush to beat the tardy bell. There are no yellow school buses dropping kids off in front of Forsyth Academy. That’s because Forsyth Academy is a charter school and parents must arrange transportation for their children to and from school.

Wendy Barajas is the principal at the school. Each morning, she personally greets her students, as they enter the building.

“Good morning. Shirts tucked in please. I hope you have a great day,” says Barajas.

Charter schools are publicly funded but governed by institutions outside the public school system, including businesses, non-profit organizations, universities, and groups of individuals who write a charter and get it approved.

Public charter schools have oversight from the North Carolina Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction. They are required to administer the same end of year testing for students as traditional public schools, but they are often exempt from most regulations that apply to other public schools.

For example, they can create their own calendars. They are also exempt from having 100 percent teacher licensing and criminal background requirements.

Parents must fill out an application for their children to attend most charter schools. Often times, a lottery is held to fill open slots in the school system.

Barajas says her school is a small community. She proudly displays the bright colored murals painted by a volunteer and shows off the new parent room used for socializing and homework opportunities. Barajas says flexibility is one of the most important features for charter schools.

“Because we are our entity, we have more freedom to be able to trial and error some things like different curricular tools and curriculum. We are part of the common core standards, but we have an option to be able to know which direction we want to go in to meet the best needs of our students without having to go through some major hoop, but it’s a big plus for our students,” says Barajas.

Barajas says charter schools also have more flexibility to move their budgets around when federal funding is tight. Last year, she lost only one teaching assistant because she was able to reallocate funds to keep the remaining positions.

Currently, there are 127 Charter Schools in North Carolina. State education officials says over the past five years, seven charter schools have been forced to close because of various reasons, including finances, low enrollment, and low academic performance. In April, the STEAM Academy in Winston-Salem voluntarily gave up its charter after several years of falling enrollment and mounting debt.

But some education experts say they are worried about using tax dollars for charter schools. They want to see more oversight from state officials.

“What we have in North Carolina is schools that are publicly financed but privately managed, so there is no elected accountability for taxpayer dollars and for the students in charter schools,” says Natalie Byer with Public Schools First North Carolina.

Byer is also a member of the Board of Education in Durham County. She says Public Schools First North Carolina wants to see more resources aimed at traditional public schools, to help solve some of the problems that already plague many districts.

“A lot of charter schools don’t translate their brochures and marketing materials into Spanish for families to be able to understand. Charter schools are also not required to provide transportation for students and if you have a district with a lot of children living in poverty, not having a school bus to get you there is a barrier of admission for a lot of students. They also are not required to provide free and reduced lunch for students, so that population is vastly underrepresented in Charter Schools in North Carolina,” says Byer.

Byer says she’s also concerned about diversity in charter schools. She says a lot of them are racially isolated, often with just all minority or non-minority students.

But Hazel Mack of Winston-Salem says support for more charter schools is needed, especially in rural and underserved areas. In the mid 1990’s, one of her daughters was struggling in public school, so Mack decided to try home schooling. She did some research about charter schools and hosted a meeting at a local library to discuss the possibility of opening a charter school in the city. The crowd was standing room only.

They formed the Carter G. Woodson School in 1996. The foundation was one of the first in the state to receive a $30,000 grant for the charter school. Like Forsyth Academy, the Carter G. Woodson School receives federal funds to provide free and reduced meals for students who qualify for the program.

Mack says enrollment at her school has grown since it opened, from around 180 to more than 500 students today.

“What we see is that the need is tied to poverty often with the majority of our students. As I got into it more and we opened the doors, we were inundated with children and parents who were saying they weren’t getting what they needed. We already have the statistics and already know the needs and the children who are not being successful, so why don't we offer the opportunity to address the needs of those children,” says Mack.

June Atkinson is the state superintendent of schools.

“I believe it would be in our best interest for our charter schools and our other public schools to find ways to work together. For example, transportation is one area where they could collaborate,” says Atkinson.

Atkinson says charter schools are an important part of the state’s education future.

“I really think when all is said and done if we can continue to help parents understand that our schools are making progress and we are doing better than we have ever done and that school districts tell parents the progress they are making, charter schools will not be a big competitor for our public schools,” Atkinson.

The state board of education recently approved 26 public charter schools, including one in Rockingham County.

WFDD is among the partners presenting a community conversation on school choice, charters and vouchers. Join us for the forum on Tuesday, October 8 at 7 p.m. at the Kulynych Auditorium in the Wake Forest University Welcome Center.  The community forum will be moderated by WFDD's Keri Brown. Parking is available immediately adjacent to the Welcome Center.

Education officials explain charter schools: pros and cons, how they work and why they are growing.

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