Charter advocate seeks reform within a climate of choice

Feb. 02, 2013 @ 08:00 PM

Darrell Allison doesn’t have much use for the idea of a moratorium on public-supported charter schools in Durham – or anywhere else, for that matter.
Instead of worrying about quantity, the president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina would prefer to focus on quality.
“I don’t think we need any type of arbitrary mechanism,” Allison said in an interview on Wednesday. “How do you come up with that number? How do you justify it? But we do need quality control. As advocates of options and choice, we have to be vigilant about quality.”
National School Choice Week coincided with the opening of a new legislative session with the General Assembly in Raleigh. It’s a new day, Allison said, with groups in power that “embrace the idea of choice.”
He said that his organization supports the idea of comprehensive education reform. For charter schools such as Research Triangle High School, where he serves on the board of directors, that would include a share of North Carolina’s lottery money.
“We really have to make sure we have more equitable funding,” Allison said. “It’s unconscionable that there’s a barring of public charter schools to have access to lottery dollars. These schools don’t have students who come from another planet. They come from the same community as traditional public school students. It’s just not right.”
Besides pushing for lottery dollars, which he described as “low-hanging fruit,” Allison said he wants to promote charter opportunities in more rural North Carolina counties. He’d like to see private schools offering “opportunity scholarships” for working-class families. He wants to bolster resources in the state’s Office of Public Charter Schools so that it can effectively monitor schools approved by the state.

Dealing with growth
Since the 100-school cap was eliminated in 2011, the state has added more than two dozen charter programs. Durham is about to have 10 charter schools. More could potentially be on the horizon after the next round of applications in March.
This explosive growth led Carl Forsyth, managing director of Voyager Academy charter school, to call for a moratorium on schools in Durham.
Allison thinks that, rather than a moratorium, everyone should instead rely on the committee that helps weed out weak charter school plans. On top of that, the state should fund the charter schools office to make sure that it has the personnel to adequately keep track of what’s happening in these schools after approval.
“You cannot eliminate the cap and not grow the office to make sure that you can properly monitor and oversee those schools,” he said. “We have the pieces in place to ensure the quality, with the understanding that we need to beef up the human capacity and financial capacity for the office.”
So what happens if, despite his best efforts, Allison isn’t able to persuade the General Assembly to adequately fund the charter school office? Should the brakes be applied?
“I don’t know if we need to set an arbitrary cap, but these are intelligent people here,” Allison said. “Just because someone wants to start a charter and it looks good, still there are other factors you have to weigh. The state Board of Education is not just a board for public charter schools. It is a board for all schools. There has to be some deliberation. At some point, you have to take into consideration that Durham has enough right now. We’ll look at your school, we’ll look at the population you aim to cater to and check to see if that’s a need that clearly isn’t being met in Durham County. Then we have to make a decision.”
Allison said that he is pleased to see DPS and local charter schools working collaboratively on a vision statement. He doesn’t think traditional school leaders oppose charter schools as much as envy them their flexibility. Charter schools answer primarily to the state, while public school districts may have their hands tied by county commissions, the state Board of Education and the federal government.
“You’ll see those that want to keep a grip and we’ll work that out, but at least they’re meeting at the table,” he said. “I think you can’t go wrong when you see this kind of collaboration.”

A source of imbalance?
A recent Duke University study released by professors Charles Clotfelter, Helen Ladd and Jacob L. Vigdor identifies Durham as fourth in the ranking of counties with socioeconomic imbalance in schools, behind Guilford, Forsyth and Mecklenburg, but ahead of Union, New Hanover, Cumberland, Buncombe, Wake and Gaston.
The study specifically points out charter schools for their potential for racial imbalance and for making traditional public schools less balanced.
“Based on their current enrollments, charter schools increase the degree of racial imbalance in the state’s public schools,” the study states. “Compared to regular public schools, charter schools are much more likely to be racially unbalanced, that is, to have fewer than 20 percent or more than 80 percent nonwhite enrollments.”
The study would seem to support concerns about the “choice environment” voiced in the run-up to Durham Public Schools’s recent decision to allow a relatively small number of students from the Woodcroft neighborhood in southern Durham to shift from Hillside High School – a predominantly black school – to Jordan, which is more evenly distributed between whites, blacks and Hispanics.
An argument in favor of allowing the Woodcroft relocation was that residents in the neighborhood had options other than Hillside and pursued them. By making another option available within DPS, supporters said, perhaps they can bring families that left for charter schools back to the traditional schools.
“The percent of non-white students and the percent of students qualifying for free/reduced lunch in DPS have both increased over the past 10 years,” said Heidi Carter, chair of the DPS Board of Education. “This is perhaps due in part to the large number of charter schools in Durham, many of which have student populations with a higher percentage of white, non-economically disadvantaged students than that of DPS.”
But Allison, an African-American and a product of North Carolina public schools, said that he doesn’t think families are regularly conspiring to leave public schools over race.
“The idea that parents are sitting down, strategizing on how to get away from some races of children or how to populate a school with preferred races of children, it may be happening in some instances,” he said. “But what you see on the flip side, which is moreso the case, I think parents are looking at the performance of our schools, hearing successes and failures, and they are then making their decision based on that information.”

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