When North Carolina charter schools were first imagined in the mid 1990s, there were two big dreams: The first was to create something different, a sort of hotbed of innovation. The second was to take all of that new thinking – at least the stuff that worked – and share it with traditional public schools.
“But the second half of that never occurred,” said Jim Merrill, superintendent of Wake County Public Schools.
Merrill doesn’t think charter schools have lived up to their vision, which is one of the reasons why he and dozens of other superintendents want school districts to be able to open their own charter schools without approval from the state.
“If our board can run a 173-school system on a $1.6 billion budget, then we’re probably qualified to authorize our own charter,” Merrill said.
Charter schools have been steadily growing in North Carolina since the cap was lifted in 2011. There are currently 148 schools in the state, with at least 11 slated to open next fall.
Even though charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars, they’re run independently, which means they don’t have to play by all of the state rules.
“We want to be able to have schools that can follow the same liberties that charter schools have,” said Wake County school board chair Christine Kushner.
Wake County public school leaders are interested in having similar flexibility around calendars, curriculums and staffing. They want to create innovative schools that are motivated by the county's taxpayers, Kushner said.
Two years ago, Republican Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, advocated for just that. He wanted districts to have the authority to approve charter schools, as well the ability to convert existing traditional public schools to charter schools.
Lambeth said he is currently refining a bill, which he plans to present in February. Other Republican lawmakers have also expressed support of providing school districts with more flexibility.
Some traditional public school officials believe they need that authority as they compete with charter schools for the same pools of money and the same communities of children.
Trying To Collaborate Instead
In Durham, school leaders have spent the last few years mulling over the role of traditional public schools as the area has seen a rapid growth of charter schools.
“Can we change the paradigm from one that’s competitive and antagonistic to one that’s more collaborative?” asked Heidi Carter, chair of the Durham school board.
Back in 2102, traditional public school and charter school leaders attempted to come up with a compact to move beyond traditional rivalries and encourage warmer relationships. The idea was to create equal educational opportunities for students.
There are several ways the school district could help the county’s 11 charter schools, noted Carter, who helped lead the talks.
“That’s sort of the easy part of the compact: how we can help with transportation, how we can help with security, how we can help with janitorial services,” Carter said.
Unlike traditional public school, charter schools don’t have to provide transportation or free and reduced-price meals. Carter said that reality has led to “increased segregation in the school system and in charter schools by race and class over time.”
She said collaboration talks stalled because charter schools weren’t committed to the challenge of educating all children, especially those who are most difficult and expensive to teach.
“I respectfully disagree with Heidi,” said Carl Forsyth, who headed Voyager Academy in Durham and was involved in those talks as a charter school representative.
He said charter schools, particularly his, were serious about helping all children.
“I feel like there was so much animosity on both sides that it was just difficult building trust,” he said.
Forsyth said he thinks it will take time before Durham school leaders can establish a real collaboration and healthy exchange of resources. Until then, Forsyth said he likes this other idea of allowing school districts to authorize their own charter schools.
“They should be given as many tools as possible to help transform student learning,” he said. “If it’s going to help the kids, then I’m all for it.”
‘They Don’t Understand Charter School Law’
Other charter school advocates, like Debbie Clary, don’t see it like that.
“I don’t think they [school superintendents] understand exactly what the charter school law is,” said Clary, a former state senator who sponsored North Carolina’s charter school law and charter school operator.
She said school superintendents are looking to reduce competition from independent charter schools.
“They’re basically asking to go back to 1994 and have one system, that’s what they’re looking for and that’s not what we want in North Carolina,” she said.
Clary argued that if traditional school system leaders desire some benefits of the charter model, then they should lobby the legislature for those specific things.
Otherwise, if granted the authority to authorize charter schools, school systems should abide by all of the rules, which include receiving limited resources, she argued.
Jim Merrill, superintendent of Wake County Public Schools said he just wants to test the waters.
“Give us an opportunity and let’s run it around the track a little bit see how it looks.” Merrill said.