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A Look At Charter Schools In NC

This week on Morning Edition, WFAE’s Lisa Miller took a look at the charter school movement. We will be seeing a lot more of those because the legislature has lifted a cap that had limited the state to 100 charter schools. Now, 25 are getting ready to open next year. Seven of them are in the Charlotte area.

Our stories focused on a charter school that’s opening and one that failed and was forced to shut down. Lisa spoke to WFAE's Mark Rumsey about charter schools.

MR: Lisa, on balance how successful or unsuccessful have charter schools been?

LM: A lot has been made of a 2009 study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University.  The group followed charter schools kids in a bunch of different states. It found that 17 percent of students at charter schools scored higher than students in their nearby traditional public schools.  Half of the students performed just as well and a third performed worse.  Now, in North Carolina charter school students did worse their first year at the charter, but better than other public school students in following years.

MR: And what makes charters schools different from traditional public schools?

LM: The big difference is charter schools have a lot more flexibility.  Since they're not part of a district, they don't have to abide by any district policies or procedures.  That's what Cheryl Turner the principal at Sugar Creek Charter in Charlotte sees as a big perk.

TURNER: I also get to make decisions that I don't have to have a lot of people to agree to and I can move quickly.  So if our curriculum team sits down and looks at something going on in our school and we say, "We really need to make a change here."  I don't have to have a district level person to agree to it.  I don't even have to present it.  We just change. 

LM: Charters also don't have to provide transportation or hire teachers at state salary ranges. 

MR: How different are the various charters from each other?

LM: There's a lot of variety.  There are charters that call themselves college prep schools. One around here has an international angle.  Another one in Lake Lure is geared to studying the classics.  Some schools like Sugar Creek are geared toward students from low-income neighborhoods.  There's been a push to open charter schools especially for these kids.  And that Stanford study says charters have been proven especially effective for these students. 

MR: Lisa, your reporting this week has shown some of the challenges in starting a charter school.  Just how easy or hard is it to do that and can anyone start a charter?

LM: In theory, yes, anyone can do it.  But it's a long process that takes a whole lot of work to get through.  First, you have to fill out a long application which involves everything from what the school's curriculum will be to insurance quotes and an employee handbook.  When it comes to CMS, they always weigh in on how the charter will impact the district because, remember, charters receive money that would normally go to the local school district.  In CMS's case, that's about $6,600 per student.  Then a state council that includes charter school administrators and board members vet it and the state school board has final approval.   

MR: Now, legislation that lifted the charter school cap includes standards that these schools must meet. Are these new standards?

LM: They're new to state law, but they've been a policy since 2009.  Charter schools must have 60-percent of students performing at grade level on standardized tests or meet growth in two of three consecutive years.  The state's Office of Charter Schools started tracking this three years ago and this year they shut down the first school for not meeting these standards.  That was Highland Charter in Gastonia, one of the schools I reported on.

MR: Are charter schools judged only by their test scores?

LM: The state's Office of Charter Schools keeps track of the scores, but they're also looking at other things.  They visit new charter schools to make sure the school is in order, the board is trained and the minutes are set aside.  And when there's a particular problem that comes up, they try to keep an eye on it.  But there's really only four people doing this work, and, remember, their caseload is going from 100 schools to about 130.