Durham County will be adding its 11th charter school in August, contributing to a recent surge in area charter schools that has drawn concern from local public school officials.
Six more Durham-based charters have applications pending with the state and 20 will be opening in the Fall. Currently, more than 12 percent of students in Durham County attend charter schools, compared with 3 percent across North Carolina. The charter school system has received criticism and concern from local Durham Public Schools officials who fear new charters will take students and funding away from already struggling traditional public schools. Charter school supporters have responded by emphasizing overall improvement in education quality over the well-being of individual schools.
“It’s very natural for the Durham Public School Board to want students to stay in the schools that they make decisions for,” said Eddie Goodall, executive director of the North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association. “But parents have left for a reason, and I want DPS to compete.”
Goodall noted that charter schools do not directly take students away from public schools. Parents voluntarily take their children out of public schools and placed them in charter schools, because they consider charters the better option.
“The charter school movement will slow down when public schools are offering something that parents want,” Goodall said.
Annie McKoy, executive director of the Reaching All Minds Academy—a Durham charter school—said that while charter schools are not necessarily superior to public schools, their primary role is to provide parents with greater options and compared choosing between charters and traditional public schools to a shopping experience.
“I won’t down Nordstrom,” McKoy said. “Nordstrom might just have what I can’t find at [J.C.] Penney’s.”
Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, added that charter schools were more likely to offer a varied educational experience as opposed to traditional public schools, which are frequently required to teach a fixed curriculum set by state and local boards of education.
“Traditional public schools tend to be uniform,” Allison said. “They handcuff creativity and innovation.”
Leigh Bordley, a member of the DPS Board of Education, expressed doubts over the need for more varied educational experiences in Durham.
“Charter schools were envisioned as laboratories and incubators,” Bordley said. “That’s not really necessary in Durham. They don’t offer anything that we don’t already have.”
Bordley cautioned against seeing charter schools as the panacea for all problems in public school education.
“People think charters are the cure,” Bordley said. “The truth is, it’s hard work to educate our children. We as a community will do better by our children if we work together to have a unified system of public education.”
Charter schools have come under fire by education experts and local officials for indirectly discriminating against low-income students. Most charter schools do not receive federal funding for transportation and free or reduced meals—a factor which can discourage the enrollment of poor students who often rely on free meals and transportation. In addition, some charter schools may have other policies such as required parent volunteer hours or early-release school days that make it hard for low-income families to accommodate.
Durham school board member Natalie Beyer criticized charter schools for consciously excluding students from low-income families.
“By design, those schools are not available to students living in poverty,” Beyer said.
Charter schools tend to discourage the enrollment of students from low-income families in “subtle ways," said Helen Ladd, Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and professor of economics. She noted that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve disadvantaged and special needs students.
Ladd added that charter schools tend to be more racially segregated than traditional public schools.
“White parents often much rather prefer charter schools with low percentages of black students, whereas black parents tend to prefer 50-50,” Ladd said. “It has a lot to do with a long tradition of white students avoiding black schools.”
Allison responded to criticism by stressing the importance of academic performance over student diversity.
“Diversity is important,” Allison said. “But we don’t go hang up our hats at that. That’s not good enough.”
Ultimately, the issue is not about charter schools versus traditional public schools, Allison noted.
“Who cares what schools?” Allison said. “As long as we get positive student statistical results, that’s what we stand for.”