Approach charter growth with vision

Jan. 12, 2014 @ 05:00 PM

2014 has gotten off to quite a start, with crucial decisions by state leaders that have potential to nearly double the number of charter schools already operating across the state. As vice-chair of an excellent public charter school, one might expect I would be thrilled about this level of interest in the charter model. Instead, I’m concerned.

Charter schools present an opportunity to prove what’s possible in public education: to achieve extraordinary success with students whose needs are too often not met in traditional public schools. But to realize that opportunity, we must set a high bar for entry to the sector, prioritize charter schools dedicated to serving high-need students, ensure equal access to charter schools and commit to closing those schools that don’t measure up.

North Carolina does not simply need more charter schools; it needs more excellent charter schools. The only applicants to receive charter approvals should be those that can demonstrate strong promise for breakthrough success.  We need charters with clear missions keenly focused on leveraging the talent and experience necessary to create great schools.  

Our state also needs schools that are dedicated to serving students who too often struggle in traditional schools, especially students from low-income backgrounds and those with disabilities or limited English proficiency. But to serve these students, we have to prioritize applicants with this mission, ensure truly equal access by requiring (and funding) food and transportation services in public charter schools, providing charters with access to facilities funding and enable weighted lotteries to let schools responsibly enroll students they are mission-driven to serve. 

Finally, state leaders must commit to close public charter schools that do not meet standards for student achievement and growth. The fundamental bargain of charter schools is increased flexibility in exchange for increased accountability. While it is never easy to shut down a school, those that fail to meet student needs year after year harm students’ future chances for success and undermine the charter movement as a whole.

Over the next several months, we have a crucial opportunity to define North Carolina’s charter school sector, greatly impacting the course of public education throughout our state. By setting an extremely high bar for success and prioritizing equity and access, we can come closer to the goal of ensuring that every North Carolina child has access to an excellent public school.

Lisa Gordon-Stella is vice chair of the board of Maureen Joy Charter School, Durham.