Rein in charter growth

May. 15, 2014 @ 09:55 PM

Charter schools just keep on coming.

The N. C. Charter School Advisory Committee this week gave the nod to three more charter schools in Durham. The state Board of Education has the final say, but that board generally follows the advisory committee’s lead.

Combined with those already open and another set to open his summer, if the latest three are approved and open on schedule, Durham will be home to 14 charter schools, tops in the state.

We are not opposed to the concept of charter schools -- and we acknowledge several in Durham provide a fine education and meet high expectations of parents who choose to send their children there.

But we continue to be troubled by their proliferation, sped by the state legislature’s lifting the cap originally put on their number.  The state’s approval process seems light, and the state Department of Public Instruction’s resources for vetting and overseeing the schools are stretched thin.

And with nothing approximating a long-term plan for the schools’ inception and growth, the county commissioners and the school board are hampered in planning for the traditional public schools that they oversee.

Durham’s magnetism for charters stems from a number of probable reasons. Undeniably, public dissatisfaction over the years with tepid performance has driven parental interest. Many affluent families may resolve their concerns about traditional public schools by sending their kids to private schools.

But for parents that may not find that financially feasible, it’s hard to fault their decision to try free charter schools they feel offer a more satisfactory alternative.

That said, research generally shows that the success of charter schools at educating children runs the gamut from exceptional to mediocre or worse, not unlike traditional public schools. And while traditional public schools face a barrage of testing that seeks to quantify their success, charters operate in a much less monitored environment.

Charters spend their share of the public money with less transparency and public oversight than traditional schools.  And while traditional schools must provide free and reduced-price lunch, deal with students in economically challenged situations that make learning difficult, educate any student who walks in the door whatever their level of special needs, for the most part charters face much less of that. 

Again, we welcome the original intent of giving charters leeway to try innovative methods, to devise curricula and instructional methods that might meet needs and solve problems that have eluded traditional schools sometimes constrained by bureaucracy and even inertia.

But Durham Public Schools are steadily improving, albeit sometimes disappointingly slowly. In many Durham public schools students receive a top-flight education that rivals that in the best charter schools. 

We need greater restraint in opening the doors to charter schools – and greater cooperation, even if the state must mandate or at least encourage it. We risk not just providing an alternative to the public schools that still serve the vast majority of students,  but undermining them to the detriment of tens of thousands of students and taxpayers.