From Durham, North Carolina comes the story of the destabilization of an urban public school system by rapid expansion of charter schools. Ned Barnett, the editorial page editor of the Durham News & Observer, and author of this guest post reprinted in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column, declares that Durham’s charter school “experiment is spinning out of control.”
Since the North Carolina General Assembly voted to lift the cap on authorization of charter schools across North Carolina, the number of the publicly funded but privately run charter schools has risen from 100 in 2011 to 127 this school year, with 26 projected to open in the fall of 2014 and 62 under consideration for 2015.
The growth of charters has been faster in North Carolina’s urban areas, where Barnett points out, the local per-pupil payments are higher. Over 12 percent of Durham County’s students now attend charters. “Durham County provides $3,086 per student… When a child enrolls in a charter school, that money goes with him or her.”
Not only is funding flowing out of the traditional public schools that continue to educate more than 87 percent of Durham County’s children, but, according to Barnett, the rush to charters is resegregating the schools by economics and by race: “The charters’ effect on the district schools has been a loss of middle-class children of both races and a concentration of poor and minority students in the district schools.”
In North Carolina, charter schools are neither required to provide transportation nor participate in the federal free and reduced price lunch program. By failing to offer the services needed by the poorest children, charters are being permitted to appeal to children whose families have greater personal resources.
A recent post on this blog explores an emerging pattern by which charter school expansion undermines urban school districts. Through screens like enrollment caps and complicated application processes, many charter schools are subtly limiting the students who enter their lotteries. Some charters like those in Durham are permitted to operate without the services necessary for the poorest children. And finally public schools must serve all children, while charters can push out children with behavior problems, those who fail academically, or who don’t fit the school’s particular profile.
Children who leave the public schools carry their funding away to the charter, but it is very difficult for the public school district to adjust programming quickly enough to accommodate the loss of students when the trickle of children is from many schools all at once. As Average Daily Membership and per-pupil funding drop, the public schools experience a loss of funding and concurrent concentration of students who are disabled, extremely poor, or learning English. These are the groups of children who are most expensive to educate.
Competition and choice sort children into winners and far too many losers and, in the cities like Durham that are expanding school choice, contribute to the establishment of two sets of schools—charters for the students who can get in and public schools of last resort for the children left behind.