Allison Eisen and Helen F. Ladd studied the promises and performance of North Carolina’s first 100 charter schools and found that their record was spotty, at best. After the Legislature raised the cap, the number of charters in the state is now 147 and growing.

 

Most distressing are the findings related to the provision of transportation and lunch services, given that serving “at-risk” and low-income students was an initial goal of the state’s charter school enabling legislation.

 

Although charter schools are not legally required to provide transportation to their students, 64 of the initial 100 charter schools in North Carolina pledged to do so in their charter applications. Yet only 33 were doing so in 2011.
Likewise, 62 of the original charters promised to provide lunch to their students even though they had no legal obligation to do so. In fact, only 43 of them were doing so.

 

These services are essential for any school hoping to attract substantial numbers of minority and low-income students. Largely because so many charter schools do not offer transportation and lunch, as a group they have increased racial and socio-economic segregation in North Carolina’s schools.

 

Up until now, there has been little oversight of charter schools in the state. The authors offer four recommendations:

 

▪ Strengthen the application guidelines for charter schools. Charter applicants should be required to carefully consider their operating model with particular attention to the costs of providing lunch and transportation services and their recruitment strategies for disadvantaged students. More detailed applications should help the Advisory Board identify flaws before the school is approved and should help school administrators better adhere to their contracts once the school is open.

 

▪ Shorten the timeline for state review from the current 10-year period to five years. A shorter window would strike a balance between ensuring N.C. schools are successful and allowing charters to operate with a sense of autonomy.

 

▪ Expand the capacity of the various offices within the Department of Public Instruction, including but not limited to the Office for Charter Schools. DPI will clearly need more personnel to support and monitor the growing number of charter schools.

 

▪ Impose consequences when a charter school fails to meet its contractual obligations. These consequences might include financial penalties or school closure. Organizations applying for a charter need to understand that they will be held accountable for their commitments.

 

As more and more students enroll in charter schools across the state, it is high time for North Carolina to provide the tools and resources needed to ensure taxpayer money is being well spent and families are getting the services for which they signed up.

 

Given the current makeup of the Legislature, there seems to be a lack of will to hold charter schools accountable for their performance or their promises.
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