Charter schools are popular and proliferating, across the state and in the Charlotte region. But have they fulfilled the original mission of serving as innovation incubators, using their flexibility to test ideas that can benefit students in all public schools?
That was one of many questions discussed at a MeckEd session on charter schools on Thursday, with a crowd of about 70 education leaders who ranged from charter advocates to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board members and administrators.
But informally there's been plenty of idea-swapping, with more in the works, leaders of charter schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools say. Sugar Creek Charter, an urban school that has had success with low-income students, has traded teacher visits with CMS schools serving some of the same neighborhoods. Socrates Academy, a Matthews charter that teaches Greek, Chinese and Spanish, has partnered with CMS language magnets for teacher training.
If nothing else, it's clear that since the state legislature lifted the 100-school cap created in 1996, the independently-run public schools are becoming a bigger player in the public education scene. CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison has convened a group of charter and private school leaders to explore common ground. Leaders of Durham County Schools are making a similar move. Like CMS, that county faces a surge of potential competition from new charters.
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Much of the discussion revolved around whether charters have an advantage over traditional public schools. For instance, Bolyn McClung said a school board member had told him charters use CMS as a "dumping ground" for students who create discipline problems. Tiffany Flowers, co-founder of KIPP Charlotte, said it's rare for her school to expel students.
Charters, like CMS magnets, can set up requirements for families that choose to apply. KIPP requires students and parents to sign contracts detailing the work they'll do to ensure success. Socrates requires each family to provide 36 hours of volunteer work -- although, as Goodall noted, that's not actually a binding requirement.
On the other hand, charter schools can have their charters revoked for consistently weak academic performance. So far such actions are rare; Goodall said only one has been closed statewide, though another half dozen are at risk this year. Sugar Creek was threatened with closing after a rocky start in 2000. The local board brought in Director Cheryl Turner after firing the for-profit management company that had opened the school. "That threat of death thing is a real motivator," Turner said, getting a laugh.
There's one other big difference: Charter school teachers don't have tenure. They can be dismissed at will, or required to work longer hours if they want a job. Charter school operators also have more flexibility on how they pay their faculty.
"I can really seek out the brightest, the best," said Janis Dellinger-Holton, principal of Socrates Academy. As a longtime principal in Wake County schools, she said, it could take her two to three years of documentation to get rid of a weak teacher.
And that's likely to be the prickliest question ahead. Some districts, including CMS, have asked the state for the same flexibility granted to charters. Bill Anderson, executive director of MeckEd, told the group that deregulating school districts and rethinking teacher tenure are among the issues that legislative leaders have identified to tackle this year.
MeckEd's instant polling showed there was some broad agreement among the audience. Eighty percent said it's important to have charters to provide "healthy competition" and parent choice. Ninety percent agreed traditional public schools should have similar flexibility "with guidelines and procedures."