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NC Charter School Academic Ratings Raise Board of Education Questions

Phil Roeder

North Carolina’s charter schools are seeing troubling trends in academic performance, even as their popularity grows.

That created some intense discussion at the state Board of Education Wednesday.

For instance, Charter School Director Dave Machado told the board that last year 42 of North Carolina’s 178 charter schools were rated low performing – a higher percentage of failure than the state’s traditional public schools logged.

The annual charter school report raised some tough questions about a form of public education that’s growing every year. This year the North Carolina has about 116,000 students in 196 charter schools, which report to independent boards rather than school districts.

Granted, many charter schools perform well:  79 earned A’s or B’s last year, based on student test scores. But charter schools underperformed traditional public schools on academic growth, and saw many measures trend down last year.

Alex Quigley, a former charter school principal who chairs the state’s Charter School Advisory Board, said the absence of a district bureaucracy and freedom from some regulations is great when a charter school has a strong leader. But that’s not always the case.

"I do think in a charter school world there’s less of a safety net," Quigley told the board. "There are fewer controls and checks and balances than you would have in a district. So that can, I think, accelerate failure in some cases when you have a poor leader."

In charter schools and school districts, failure tends to track poverty levels. The charter report shows that 95% of the charter schools that earned A’s had poverty levels at or below 20%, while 83% of the F charter schools had poverty levels of 40% or higher. About a dozen of last year’s low-performing charter schools are in the Charlotte region.

Machado says his office doesn’t have enough staff to provide ongoing support for low-performing schools.

"Unfortunately we make a site visit, we give them a report, and we don’t have the manpower to go back again to see if they’ve improved until next year, if they’re on the same list," he said.

Some Board of Education members questioned Quigley about the advisory board’s decision to rewrite the annual report, removing some comparisons between the racial demographics in charter and district schools. James Ford, a Charlotte education consultant and former teacher, said the state can’t shy away from racial disparities.

"If it’s a matter of accuracy, I get it, you know," Ford said. "But if it’s because we think things will get blown out of proportion or won’t play well in the media or won’t conform to a prescribed agenda, then I think we’re moving out of the realm of public accountability and moving into public relations."

Quigley, the advisory board chair, said the state should dive deeper into all sorts of charter school data, given the surge in schools and enrollment since the state lifted the 100-school limit in 2011.

"We’re about to reach the point where we have doubled the number of charter schools in the state," he said.

But Quigley said the annual report, which is required by the General Assembly, may not be the right format – and he questioned whether the state’s charter school office has the staff and expertise to do that work.

Meanwhile, the state is about to decide on another round of applications to open new charter schools in 2020 and 2021.