As a proud resident of Raleigh, watching North Carolina continuously pass harmful laws that weaken the quality of its charter schools has been like watching someone you love make bad choices over and over again, falling further and further from grace.
Early on in chartering, a handful of states had such weak laws and accountability that they were sometimes referred to as the “wild, wild west.” Thankfully, over time, these states have seen the light and taken steps to ensure their laws embody the three pillars of charter schools—accountability, autonomy, and access and equity for all—in ways that provide more good options for students and protect public interests.
Unfortunately, North Carolina is on an inverse trajectory.
North Carolina began its backslide in 2015, when the legislature amended the state’s law to automatically renew charter schools for 10 years, as long as they made “substantial progress.” Unfortunately, the State Board defined substantial progress without any reference to meeting academic performance expectations in a charter contract, which has allowed demonstrably failing schools to remain open. Schools have argued that the law requires their authorizer to keep them open if they can provide any evidence of “progress.” Renewals should be earned by demonstrated success, not automatically granted—especially when the bar is so low.
The state took another step backwards in 2016, when the legislature adopted a law that only allowed an authorizer to close a charter for academic reasons if “student academic outcomes for the immediately preceding three years have not been comparable to the academic outcomes of students in the local [district].”
In 2018, the legislature passed a bill that allowed specific towns and municipalities to operate charter schools. At face value, this was not problematic, since the same application, enrollment, and operations rules would still apply to a municipality. However, the intent has been questioned by many, suggesting the purpose of these schools would be purely to allow wealthy, white families an “out” from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.
More recently, the slide continues. While other states have been closing virtual charter schools if and when they perform poorly, NC legislators recently debated a bill that would actually GROW the state’s virtual schools by lifting the enrollment cap. This is despite their continuous, dismal track record (part of a national trend, unfortunately).
If a currently pending bill passes, renewal standards will be rolled back even further, requiring the State Board of Education to give a 10-year renewal to a charter school if its students are performing within at least five percentage points of the school district where it is located. Talk about the prettiest horse in the glue factory!
NC Students and Families Deserve Better
With a public education system that ranks 40th in the country, North Carolina desperately needs more quality public schools. Rather than recklessly drive the state backwards, North Carolina should pursue a path of strong authorizing and strong charters.
Here are a few places to start.
- Create “guardrails” for virtual charter schools. Follow the lead of states grappling with how to create policies to keep virtual education available to those who need it, while ensuring enrolled children are actually logging in and learning. This includes establishing criteria for enrollment, setting clear expectations for student performance in each contract, and funding virtuals based on performance and what it actually costs to run them.
- Make charters demonstrate success to remain open, and address the “worst-of-the-worst.” A strong renewal standard allows authorizers to enforce accountability and close failing charter schools by shifting the burden of proof from the authorizer to a failing school. Renewal should be earned by schools when they demonstrate success, not by merely the lack of failure. Default closure provisions address the “worst-of-the-worst” schools by setting the expectation that a charter school failing to meet a minimal performance threshold will close, barring special circumstances.
- Promote rigorous oversight by putting professional standards for charter school authorizing in place. Authorizing is a major public stewardship role and a complex profession requiring particular capacities and commitment. It should be treated as such—with standards-based barriers to entry and ongoing evaluation to maintain the right to authorize. Professional standards such as NACSA’s Principles & Standards help guide authorizers through all key stages of charter oversight and include standards designed to protect student and public interests and to safeguard charter school autonomy.
It is not too late for North Carolina to pull out of its nosedive. This is the time for the legislature and the Governor to come together, dig deep for political courage, and implement statutory changes that will improve charter authorizing. This will have a lasting, positive impact on thousands of students and families in the Tarheel State.