The rise of school choice, celebrated by President Donald Trump’s administration Thursday, has raised questions about charter schools’ accountability.
Earlier this month, the State Board of Education recommended a charter in Durham shut down its high school after it was discovered some 160 students received diplomas without meeting graduation requirements.
Matt Ellinwood, the director of the Education and Law Project at the North Carolina Justice Center, said policymakers need to focus on how to ensure quality choices for students while avoiding school closures.
“It’s not healthy for students’ education to be moving environments all the time and learning two different sets of standards,” he said. “We want some stability there.”
Charter schools are heavily scrutinized before they open their doors, said William Cobey, the chairperson of the State Board of Education.
“They have to go through a rigorous application process,” he said. “Far more don’t make it through than do make it through, and a lot of people are disappointed that they don’t get a charter.”
Cobey said he appreciates charter schools’ innovation.
“Some of the most outstanding public schools that we have are charter schools but also some of the weakest that we have are charter schools too,” he said. “It’s an early movement.”
Lynn Edmonds, a staff member for Public Schools First NC, said the success of high-performing charter schools could be attributed to the student body rather than the educational environment.
“Most of the charter schools that are very successful don’t have any special needs students, and they don’t have any poverty,” she said. “So when you have the cream of the crop of what would be public school students, it’s not hard to be excellent-performing.”
A 2015 Duke University study found that state charter schools have become increasingly racially segregated. According to the study, parents with children at predominantly white charter schools were more satisfied with their children’s education than parents from other charter schools.
Terry Stoops, director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation, said racial segregation is reflective of the entire education system, not just charter schools.
“The idea that charter schools are part of some sort of movement towards resegregating education ignores the fact the traditional district systems tend to be just as segregated, sometimes even more so than charter schools,” he said.
Edmonds said certain policies, such as those allowing charter schools to forgo providing transportation, further divide students by socioeconomic status. She said school choice is often restricted to those students who already have resources.
“If your family doesn’t have a car, you can’t choose the school that you have to provide transportation for,” she said.
Cobey said transportation rarely prevents students from attending charter schools.
“The parents figure out how to get their children there,” he said. “If the desire is there, there tends to be a way to overcome the transportation issue.”
Ellinwood said the state’s role is to provide access to resources for students.
“The responsibility is on the state and charter school system to figure out how to get kids to the school. It shouldn’t fall on the parents.”
Ellinwood said the time spent debating charter schools could be better used elsewhere.
“We still have most of our students in traditional public schools and that’s just too large of a group of students to ignore,” he said. “You can’t take your eye off what is happening in the public school context.”