September 20, 2012
The Guilford County Board of Education is fighting a rearguard action against the expansion of charter schools, more than a year after the North Carolina General Assembly removed the 100-school cap on charter schools in the state.
The Guilford County school board, like others across North Carolina, fought tooth and nail to prevent the cap from being lifted, but lost when Gov. Beverly Perdue signed a bill removing it in June 2011.
The bill Perdue signed was a compromise. Charter school supporters wanted the cap lifted and the authority to approve charter schools removed completely from the State Board of Education; the compromise bill eliminated the 100-school cap but left the approval of new schools under the state board.
The Guilford County school board had lobbied for years to kill the charter school movement in North Carolina – and, although it's doubtful that any state legislator was kept awake at night worrying about what the Guilford County school board wanted, the cumulative influence of school boards across the state and of the North Carolina Association of Educators hindered the movement until Republicans took over both houses of the state legislature for the first time in a century in January 2011.
Charter schools are public schools that are funded by the state education allotment for each student, which is transferred to a charter school along with the student – but are not under the control of local boards of education.
Both traditional public schools and charter schools have complained about differences in funding and costs between the two types of schools. Charter schools don't have to provide transportation or cafeterias, but then county and state taxpayers, as well as lottery players, cough up millions to build traditional public schools, while charter schools have to build their own buildings – often from their operating revenue.
The removal of the charter school cap has already brought new charter schools to Guilford County.
In March 2012, the state approved two Guilford County charter schools, Cornerstone Charter Academy and a school that was proposed to be called High Point College Preparatory Academy – but which, after objections from High Point University over possible confusion between the two schools, was renamed the College Preparatory and Leadership Academy of High Point. Those schools opened in August 2012.
Also in August 2012, the state approved 25 charter schools that were cleared to open in August 2013, including Summerfield Charter Academy in Summerfield and the North Carolina Leadership Academy, which is looking for land in Oak Ridge or Kernersville.
Having lost the fight to prevent the removal of the 100-school cap, the Guilford County school board is trying to come up with restrictions that would limit the number of new schools that will open. A Thursday, Sept. 13 meeting of the school board's Legislative Committee turned into an anti-charter-school war council.
Meetings of the Legislative Committee have become more interesting since Republicans captured the statehouse. For years, the school board has spent time, effort and money lobbying the General Assembly for favors, with little success even when Democrats were in control. That held true even when the school board had a genuine gripe, such as the fact that it has to pay the state sales tax on everything it buys – including materials to build schools – while private schools and even NASCAR have exemptions from the sales tax.
School systems get refunds on any local sales taxes, but not on the state sales tax.
The Legislative Committee didn't spend much time on legitimate gripes. However. It spent a large majority of its time dreaming up millstones to hang around the necks of charter schools.
Committee members complained that some charter schools don't "represent the demographics of the school system" – meaning they don't have the same racial mix as Guilford County Schools
School board member Sandra Alexander suggested asking the state to penalize charter schools who don't have the same racial mix as the school system. She said, "That gets to the folks who try to make private schools out of charter schools at public expense."
The problem with Alexander's suggestion are legion. First, to point out the obvious, the charter schools aren't part of the school system, and there's no reason that they should have the same racial mix as Guilford County Schools
, which has roughly 40 percent black students, 40 percent white students and 20 percent other races or ethnicities.
Second, many schools in the Guilford County Schools
system have enrollments that are far from the 40/40/20 overall racial breakdown of the school system.
Third, the school board always assumes that charter schools will be predominantly white institutions filled with white students whose parents have fled Guilford County Schools
. That may be true for some schools, but it ignores the history of charter schools in many cities, such as New York and Chicago, where many charter schools are chock full of black students who have fled failing schools in the traditional public school system.
If you get on the New York City subway at the right time of day, you see large groups of black students in charter school uniforms. Charter schools in many cities are serving black students better than traditional public schools – a fact that the school board tacitly acknowledges by modeling some of its magnet schools on charter schools that have done so.Guilford County Schools
Chief of Staff Nora Carr went further, saying there should be sanctions – "not to mention public outrage, which would be appropriate" – for charter schools that do not serve a proportionate share of homeless, bilingual, special-education and non-English-speaking students.
Carr said the North Carolina Public Charter School Advisory Council should look, in charter school applications, for charter schools who will serve those groups. She said, "It helps in that it would drive charter schools and the charter school board to be more conscious of those things."
It would be fine if charter schools can come up with educational and business models to serve those groups of students. But requiring it ignores the place of charter schools in the public school ecosystem. Charter schools are supposed to be small, nimble, limited-regulation schools that can experiment with new educational methods in ways traditional public schools can't.
As the school board always claims, it takes more money to educate those subgroups of students. Guilford County Schools
allocates money to its schools using the "weighted student formula" system.
Weighted student formula funding is a method of assigning weights to the educational needs of particular types of students, such as poor students, those whose first language is not English, homeless students and gifted students. If a school system, for example, decides that it's 1.5 times as hard to teach a poor, gifted or non-English speaking student, the school of each such student would receive 1.5 times as much money as it would receive for an ordinary student....continued on page 2