Jonathan Kozol, an activist for public education, spoke at an event last week hosted by Duke’s Program in Education. For the past fifty years, Kozol has been both an educator and a researcher of public education, gaining notoriety as one of the most high-profile critics of inequalities within public-school systems. Perhaps most controversial of Kozol’s remarks at the event was his blatant condemnation of charter schools. Though Kozol’s criticism of charter schools may seem particularly biased, his polarizing remarks nonetheless represent an important voice within the present debate concerning public education in North Carolina.
North Carolina’s first charter schools opened in 1997, one year after the General Assembly passed the Charter Schools Act—allowing the establishment of one-hundred charter schools in the state. The act came as part of a national movement geared towards increasing educational quality through non-traditional schools, which enjoyed bipartisan support. Charter schools can write their own curriculum, hire their own teachers, set their own hours and are often not subject to governance by a local or state school board. Despite support for the alternative educational system, charter schools in North Carolina have not proven themselves to benefit student achievement. Research into North Carolina charter schools has even shown that charter students make smaller achievement gains than their peers at traditional public schools. Nevertheless, North Carolina lawmakers have attempted since 2001 to expand the charter school system; in 2011 the legislative cap on the number of charter schools was abolished.
Since the removal of the charter school cap, seventy-three new schools have opened and twenty more are set to open next year. Moreover, there is even currently a plan to open the largest charter school in the state. Charter Schools USA, the for-profit company behind this latest addition to the charter system, stands to make $2 million a year from the school, enrolling over 2,000 students in Cary, North Carolina—situated squarely within the wealthy western side of Wake County. Though charter schools are technically open to any student in the surrounding area, its centrality to wealthy students will likely determine the enrollment of the new mega charter school in Cary. Additionally, the application and or lottery process required for admission to charters can work to disenfranchise students with less social capital or less involved parents.
As the number of charter schools in the state grows, the North Carolina GOP is working towards exacerbating inequities within the public-school system. Charter schools have been found to foster more racially segregated student bodies than those at public schools. In addition, the North Carolina General Assembly—which is currently super-majority Republican—refuses to meaningfully increase funding for North Carolina’s traditional public schools. Adjusted for inflation, per-pupil spending in North Carolina has decreased by $800 since 2008. As school funding continues to dwindle, all citizens of North Carolina will need to consider the negative effects such cuts will have on education quality, which is often used to justify opening more charter schools.
On campus, discourse around public education at Duke is mostly relegated to service learning courses, which end after one semester. If Duke students are genuinely concerned with educational issues, we must work towards halting the ever-quickening crawl of inequitable schooling throughout North Carolina, including Durham. At a university where 15 percent of the student body are products of the state educational system, and where 66 percent come from public schools, Duke has a special duty to ensure that such schools remain well-funded and dedicated to democratic values.