North Carolina School Boards Association “Facts on Charter Schools”
The North Carolina School Board Association (NCSBA) recently published a new document attacking charter schools. The document, titled “NC’s Charter School Law: Creating Two Public Education Systems” is riddled with errors, half-truths, and misleading claims. This attempt to deceive policy makers and the public raises serious questions about the objectivity and integrity of the NCSBA, and calls into question the wisdom of allowing that organization to continue to receive public funds (nearly all of NCSBA’s funding is derived from public sources, such as dues from local boards of education).
The Facts on Charter Schools
The NCSBA charges that the existence of charter schools in our state constitutes a “separate system” of public education, a rhetorically charged term in education circles, but one devoid of substance. The truth is that there is only one system of public education in the state, and that within that system there are multiple types of schools, one of those types being public charters. All charter schools are public schools, operating on a charter issued by the State Board of Education and reporting to (and overseen by) that board, in accordance with laws passed by the General Assembly and policies set by the State Board of Education (SBE).
It’s interesting to note that local district school boards operate many other kinds of schools—magnet schools, early-college schools, special purpose schools-within-a-school, regional schools, ‘cooperative, innovative high schools’—yet no one claims that these constitute a separate school system. Some of these district-run schools even employ practices and techniques such as selective admissions that the NCSBA erroneously claims that charter schools use.
Below are some assertions (in red) made by the NCSBA report, along with the truth for comparison purposes.
Charter schools are governed by private, non-elected, unaccountable boards that include out-of-state residents and individuals who profit from the school monetarily.
The Truth: The NCSBA does not seem to understand what the word ‘accountable’ means. While members of local boards of education who wish to maintain their positions are held accountable by the voters for their management of local schools once every four years, members of charter school boards are constantly held accountable for their performance by parents, who may choose at any time to withdraw their children (and the funding which follows the child) from the school. The resumes of all board members of prospective charter schools are reviewed by the North Carolina Public Charter Schools Advisory Council and the SBE prior to the approval of each school’s charter, and members who subsequently join the board of a charter school must be vetted and approved by that charter school’s board in accordance with the by-laws approved by the SBE for that school. There is no counterpart to this vetting process for local boards of education; the people of a local district may elect almost anyone, regardless of qualifications (or lack thereof) to their local boards. In those very few instances in which out-of-state residents serve on charter school boards, they usually do so because they bring critical expertise to the board which would otherwise be lacking. A very small percentage of public charter schools allow board members to do business with the schools they serve, subject to conflict of interest policies reviewed and approved by the advisory council and the SBE. Unlike most local school boards, public charter schools typically do not pay board members a salary or stipend for serving. The vast majority of public charter school board members serve at great personal expense to themselves, in time, energy, and monetary contributions to the school or its foundation.
Charter schools are operated by for-profit, out-of-state corporations.
The Truth: Some public charter schools have management contracts with professional education management entities, but all are ultimately controlled by local boards and subject to oversight by the SBE. Nearly all district school boards contract for some services with outside entities, both for-profit and not-for-profit. Some of these are from out-of-state. Many districts contract with the NCSBA itself for training for school board members.
Charter schools are exempt from the legal and ethical laws developed for public school governing boards over the past 55 plus years.
The Truth: Charter schools operate within the legal framework of G.S 115C-238.29, commonly known as the Public Charter School Law. While that law exempts charter schools from “statutes and rules applicable to a local board of education” it also establishes many statutes that are applicable specifically to public charter schools. In addition, the SBE sets numerous rules and policies for charter schools that are not applicable to local school boards. Finally, there is nothing in the charter school law which states or implies an ethical standard for charter school operation that is in any way lower or less rigorous than that set for local boards of education. The NCSBA’s reference to “ethical laws” is a thinly veiled attempt to imply that public charter schools are somehow held to a lesser ethical standard, and that is clearly not the case.
Charter schools are exempt from public bidding laws that are designed to safeguard public taxpayer dollars.
The Truth: Public charter schools are indeed exempt from bidding laws, and yet charters consistently achieve the same or better academic results for less money than their local district counterparts. Unlike local school boards, charter schools do not receive capital funds and may not appeal to their local county commission for increased funding in case of cost overruns or budgeting crises brought on by poor decisions. In that respect public charter schools live in a less forgiving, ‘real world’ business environment in which there is every incentive to keep costs low. The experience to date has proven conclusively that this approach works at least as well as the public bidding laws to “safeguard public taxpayer dollars.”
Charter schools are exempt from the requirement of having 100% licensed teachers.
The Truth: All public charter school teachers must meet the federal definition of “highly qualified.” Public charter schools may employ non-certified teachers as a certain percentage of total staff—25% for elementary grades, 50% for middle and high school— but in practice very few hire so many. More importantly, since teacher licensing has not been shown to correlate strongly with student achievement, the NCSBA’s complaint is rather moot, reflecting undue concern with inputs rather than results. Public charter schools have been remarkably successful at attracting high-quality staff regardless of licensure requirements.
Charter schools are exempt from providing transportation and meals, thus excluding many at-risk children from the practical ability to attend.
The Truth: The charter school law requires that every charter school have a transportation plan to ensure that lack of transportation does not constitute a barrier to enrollment. The law has a similar provision for meals. Public charter schools employ various methods to meet these requirements. Some purchase buses and hire drivers to transport students who otherwise would not be able to attend, others contract with outside entities to provide transportation services. Most also are very proactive in organizing parent car pools. As for meals, all public charter schools make some arrangements for meal service for needy students, usually by contracting with outside providers. Some run their own cafeterias. The NCSBA has repeatedly claimed that the lack of state-mandated bus and cafeteria services keep poor children from applying to public charter schools, but to date have produced no evidence that any students, at-risk or otherwise, have actually been excluded from attending any charter school within a reasonable distance due to lack of transportation or meal service. At the same time, the NCSBA has consistently opposed any effort to allow public charter schools access to the capital funds which they would need to purchase busses or build cafeterias if such services were mandated.
Inaccurate and Misleading Comparisons
The NCSBA report goes on to offer side-by-side comparisons between schools operated by local school boards and public charter schools. Many of the statements made by the NCSBA about charter schools in the comparison are misleading, only partially true, or completely false. Some examples follow:
- The “Charter School Act allows the school’s charter to limit enrollment by intellectual ability, measures of achievement or aptitude, and athletic ability.” This is highly misleading, at best. The charter school law (115C-238.29g(1)) says that “Any child who is qualified under the laws of this State for admission to a public school is qualified for admission to a charter school,” and in line (5), “A charter school shall not discriminate against any student on the basis of ethnicity, national origin, gender, or disability.” That line goes on to allow public charter schools to have mission statements targeting specific student populations (such as at-risk), or promoting a specific educational program or philosophy (such as STEM, the Arts, or Montessori), but those mission statements are vetted and approved by the SBE prior to the school’s being granted a charter and may not have the effect of excluding classes of students, as the NCSBA report implies. It should also be noted that local school districts operate many special schools with far more restrictive entrance criteria than any allowed for public charter schools. Charter schools may not test or screen applicants, and must admit any student who applies, as long as that student is eligible to attend public school in North Carolina (right age range, resides in the state, etc.) and spaces are available. Public charter schools are barred by law from accepting more students than allowed by their SBE-approved charter.
- “Students can be suspended or expelled without hearings.” All public charter schools must have a written policy on student discipline spelling out in detail their procedures for suspensions and expulsions. Those written policies are reviewed and approved by the SBE prior to the school being granted a charter. No public charter school may suspend or expel a student without following those SBE-approved procedures. The NCSBA report clearly tries to convey the impression that charter schools are permitted to ‘get rid’ of problem students without due process, but this is not the case.
- “Students can be asked to leave due to academic or behavior problems.” If “asked to leave” means “dis-enrolled” (or ‘kicked out’) this is patently false. The language chosen by the NCSBA here is indicative of an attempt to deceive, as there is no legal definition of “asked to leave,” and the author clearly wants the reader to conclude that charter schools may return problem students to their local school district whenever they want. The truth is that students may be suspended or expelled from public charter schools in accordance with SBE-approved student discipline policies for the same behavioral infractions that would result in suspension or expulsion from any other public school in the state. The law also says that local district schools are not required to accept students who have been expelled or suspended from a public charter school until the term of the expulsion or suspension has expired, if the behavior that caused the suspension or expulsion would have resulted in similar punishment in the district school. In no case may a public charter school expel, suspend, dis-enroll, or otherwise “ask” a student to leave for academic reasons.
- “Employees can be fired by the board without any hearing rights.” Again, public charter schools’ policies for hiring and firing are spelled out in each school’s charter application, and are reviewed and approved by the SBE before going into effect. Substantive changes to those policies must be approved by the SBE. In actual practice most if not all charter schools have procedures in place whereby employees may appeal their dismissals to the charter school board. The author clearly wants the reader to conclude that charter schools commonly fire employees capriciously or arbitrarily. That is simply not the case.
- “No limit on what the private company or its employees can be paid.” Another moot point. There are no arbitrary limits on what the private company or its employees can be paid, but there are very real, and very effective, practical limits, as determined by the school’s mission and overall budget. Public charter schools operate on significantly smaller budgets than their local district school counterparts. If they don’t educate students to the satisfaction of the state and of the students’ parents, and do so within their budgets, they go out of business. Chronic overpayments to outside companies or staff would spell the end of any charter school.
- “No restrictions or accountability on how public dollars are spent.” Entirely false. The charter school law lays out specific restrictions on what public dollars may and may not be used for. It also empowers the SBE to set financial audit procedures and requirements for charter schools. Those audits are at least as rigorous as any conducted at a district school. All public charter schools are required by law to report at least annually to the SBE any information, financial or otherwise, the SBE requires. No public charter school can spend a dime without the SBE knowing all about it.
The entire premise of the NCSBA report seems to be that public charter schools are bad because they are not regulated in the exact same way as district schools. And yet, one of the main ideas behind public charter schools was to free parents, community leaders, and professional educators from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ mold of the traditional public education bureaucracy and to allow experimentation and innovation to flourish. They are supposed to be regulated differently in some ways.
What the NCSBA does not tell you.
The NCSBA report is long on differences between public charter schools and their district counterparts, but virtually silent on the many ways in which charter schools are held to the same or higher standards. Consider the following:
- Charter schools use the same Standard Course of Study as all other public K-12 schools in North Carolina. They administer the same tests in the same courses at the same grade levels and under the same conditions as all other public K-12 schools. Their tests are graded the same way, and their schools’ performance composites and annual growth requirements are calculated in the same way as those of their district counterparts. There is absolutely no difference, in terms of academic accountability, between public charter and district schools.
- Charter schools are audited by the SBE at least once every five years, and undergo a rigorous charter renewal process at least as often. District schools undergo the very similar “SACS” accreditation every five years. And some charter schools undergo SACS accreditation in addition to their SBE charter renewal.
- Charter schools must meet the same health and safety standards as all other public K-12 schools.
- Charter schools must be non-sectarian and follow the same rules as all other public K-12 schools regarding separation of church and state.
- Charter schools may not charge any fees, except those that are charged by the public school district in which they are located.
- Charter schools must meet the same standards for the education of children with disabilities as all other public K-12 schools.
- Charter schools must utilize the same reporting system and submit the same reports to the SBE as all other public K-12 schools.
In addition to all the above, public charter schools are subject to certain laws and held to certain standards that go beyond what is required of their district counterparts. For instance:
- Charter schools must buy liability insurance, in types and amounts determined by the SBE, rather than ‘self insure’ as some local school districts do.
- In addition to receiving no capital funding whatsoever from the state or local governments, some charter schools receive only part of the local supplemental education tax funding paid by the parents of their students.
- Most importantly, public charter schools in North Carolina are subject to a ‘death penalty’ that does not apply to any local district school. The SBE is empowered to revoke the charter of any public charter school for a host of reasons, from poor academic performance to non-compliance with financial and other regulatory requirements. The SBE defines poor academic performance as having fewer than 60% of all students scoring at grade level on state mandated end of course tests and failing to meet expected annual growth targets in two out of any three academic years. This is a standard that many district schools frequently fail to meet, without penalty. The SBE recently revoked the charter of two schools under this policy, in effect closing those schools and returning their students to their assigned district schools.
This last point is critical to a proper understanding of the NCSBA’s accusations. The SBE already has the legal authority it needs to revoke the charter of any school that fails to educate children to standard, is careless or unaccountable with public funds, or engages in unethical practices. Increasing the regulatory burden on public charter schools as the NCSBA advocates will not make them any better; it would only make them more expensive, less flexible, and less accountable to the parents they serve. In short, it will make them more like traditional district schools.
The leadership of the NCSBA surely knows how specious the accusations against public charter schools in their report really are. They make these charges not out of any concern for the education of children or the interests of parents or taxpayers, but solely to preserve the near monopoly that the traditional education establishment now holds over K-12 public education spending. School districts do not like having to compete with public charter schools for students, or more precisely, for the dollars that accompany them.
The NCSBA exists to protect the institutional interests of local school boards, especially the financial interests of those boards. To the extent that public charter schools are seen to threaten those interests they are ‘fair game’ in the eyes of the NCSBA. That is the only logical explanation for the parade of distortions, half-truths, and outright prevarications presented in their report. Policy makers, the media, and the public should not be taken in by their transparent attempt to protect their “territory” at the expense of our children’s education.
NC Public Charter Schools Association