Keeping an eye on charter growth

Jan. 10, 2014 @ 03:49 PM

If the Durham Public Schools Board of Education proposed opening eight new tax-funded schools by 2015, we suspect taxpayers rightfully would be at best scratching their heads and more likely angrily organizing campaigns to oust members.

However, if the state Board of Education later this year approves all eight charter applications now pending for Durham (bringing the total in the county to 19), taxpayers will indeed be footing part the bill.
Under the act in 1996 that created charters, any organization or person can start a school, regardless of qualifications. And while local elected school boards are responsible for passing on public dollars to charters (Durham Public Schools sent more than $15 million to local charters last year), they do not bear any management role. Instead, the schools are governed by their own community boards.
The state is seeing tremendous growth with charters since the cap on the number in the state was lifted in 2011. State officials have 170 new charter school applications before them.
Those numbers beg the question of how many schools counties can support.
Even some established charter schools are turning a concerned eye to the numbers.
Carl Forsyth, managing director of Voyager Academy, urged a cautionary approach to the continued growth of charters in an interview with Greg Childress on Thursday.
Forsyth, whose school is well regarded in Durham, argues that the state should focus on establishing quality charter schools, versus simply a high number of charters. His belief is that charters should be a place where innovation in education is explored by teachers, and then replicated if it’s successful.
“The charter school movement has moved away from an educational focus to a political focus,” he said.
You could argue that established charter schools are protecting themselves from competition new schools would bring. And it’s also curious why charters who are now seeking to stem the tide didn’t see the politicization coming.
That said, the reality is that we are going to be dealing with charters for years to come, and for some, it’s a business endeavor, not an educational one. To deter that – not to mention that quality should always be the goal in education -- we agree with Forsyth high-caliber schools should be the focus.
For parents who often use the gauge of test scores to determine what might be occurring inside the schools, there’s not much of a discernible difference so far between traditional public and charter schools.
Taxpayers need to keep a wary eye on the growth of charters and be mindful that an increasing number of schools will dilute the amount of funding overall as it is spread among ever-increasing numbers. They also need to watch to see how successful the charter model is and weigh whether it’s worth the investment.