Jeff Bryant’s “Tar Heel Heist” Traces Disaster of Charter School Growth in North Carolina

Everyone should read Jeff Bryant’s report for Alternet from North Carolina on the impact of rapid charter school growth on the public schools in a state that spends less on education than it did prior to the 2008 recession. “What’s unclear is how a state hell-bent on financial austerity can afford to create what is essentially a new parallel school system of taxpayer supported charter schools.”

Residents of Massachusetts, which just rejected a bid to lift the cap on the authorization of new charter schools, should feel very smug. By contrast, Bryant tells us what happened back in 2011 after North Carolina eliminated its charter school growth cap: “In 2011, North Carolina state lawmakers lifted the cap on the number of charters allowed to operate in the state, which had been limited to 100—a move not only backed by Republicans but also encouraged by the Obama administration’s requirement for Race to the Top grant money, which the state won. In the first three years, 53 new charters opened their doors in the state, raising the charter school population in the state by 65 percent.”

To make matters more complicated, the state’s population—including the number of school children—is rapidly growing.  North Carolina’s public schools now serve serve 76,000 more students than they did back in 2008.  Wake County school board member Christine Kushner tells Bryant that, “Responding to growth is at the top of the list. ‘Wake County adds nearly a kindergarten class every day,’ she estimates.'”

Charter schools in North Carolina pose many of the same challenges to the public schools as they have been shown to do in other states: “Much of the fervor for charters in North Carolina came from conservative lawmakers who promised these schools would be more financially efficient. But the supposed financial efficiency of charters is muddled by the fact that these schools don’t have to provide many of the services traditional public schools provide, such as transportation, a hot lunch, and personnel to attend to the needs of students who struggle with English or who have the most challenging physical and emotional issues. Also, in North Carolina only half the teachers in a charter have to be certified, so teachers are often paid a lot less…  Ten of the new schools closed within four years, four during their first year of operation. The closures displaced more than 1,100 students and often left large amounts of taxpayer dollars unaccounted for.”

In North Carolina where school districts are county-wide, charters have a strong incentive to shop for students—especially charters located in lower-spending county districts that surround the more affluent cities: “Charters from outside the district that enroll Wake County students confound budget planning further, as students who transfer to charters take district and state money with them.  Frequently, the out-of-district charters are located in counties that spend less per student than Wake spends, which gives the charters an incentive to poach students from Wake rather than their surrounding communities… Durham County charters poach students from schools in neighboring Orange County, which has the highest per pupil expenditure in the state.  And so the scramble for cash goes as charters are incentivized to pick off students from the most well-off districts so they can maximize their per-pupil revenues.”  Schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area face the same fiscal challenges: “Case in point, a local news outlet recently reported that a community school district in neighboring Cabarrus County was blind-sided by a bill for $326,800 in payment for 231 students who transferred to a new charter that opened nearby.” It has become impossible for school districts to predict their enrollments, and when the charters close, the public schools must find a way to accommodate a large number of students—often without reimbursement or time to plan.

Bryant explains how the giant, for-profit, often out-of-state charter management companies are making a profit by expanding into North Carolina. In many cases the CMOs also own real estate divisions that buy buildings and rent them back to their own charters at taxpayer expense.  There are also conflicts of interest, such as the notorious case of the for-profit Roger Bacon Academies Management Company, owned by Baker Mitchell, that was then hired by four charter schools put together by people recruited by Baker Mitchell: “Virtually every aspect of the RBA schools’ financials is tied to Mitchell’s business relationships.”

Bryant interviews Alex Quigley, a member of the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board, “that recommends to the State Board of Education individual charters for approval and policies for operating all aspects of the schools. Like many of his colleagues on the CSAB, Quigley is in thick with the charter industry, having led a charter school in Durham and now currently serves as managing director for Pave Schools, a charter school chain in New York City and Raleigh, NC.”  “I ask Quigley if having so many members of a regulatory board for charter schools with strong ties to the charter industry—and one with ties to a for-profit—might not create conflicts of interest.”  Quigley answers, “Only board members can decide if there’s a conflict of interest. We are all very aware of the lines that can potentially be crossed.”

Bryant’s in-depth profile of the growth of charter schools in North Carolina demands that we evaluate charter schools not merely by the test scores of the few children who enroll but by a much larger question: How is charter school expansion affecting all of the children in a given metropolitan area or state—including the children who remain in traditional public schools?  Bryant shares the concerns documented in a stunning new study by Rutgers professor Bruce Baker for the Economic Policy Institute on the impact of charter school growth:  “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

This blog covered Bruce Baker’s new study  here.  This blog has covered problems of public school funding and the charter sector in North Carolina here.

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