Some charter supporters have blamed North Carolina’s failure to prevail in the competition (ultimately, the feds selected just two states, Delaware and Tennessee) on its longstanding state law that caps the number of charters in the state at 100. Indeed, for some on the ideological right, it has become almost an article of faith that the charter cap is the most significant roadblock to continued progress for the state’s education system.
A look at the facts “on the ground,” however, provides convincing evidence that these concerns are off-base.
On the question of Race to the Top funding, cap critics are almost certainly wrong since Tennessee has a comparable, if not more restrictive, charter law. Moreover, on the broader question of charters generally, there is also little evidence that North Carolina’s toe-in-the-water approach is holding the state back. Indeed, there are several reasons that the cap continues to make good sense. Here are a few:
Overall, charter performance is nothing special - When it comes to the performance of charters in lifting student achievement, the results are mixed at best. The most recent and thoroughly researched national report on the matter was released last June by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. It found that there is “a wide variance in the quality of the nation’s several thousand charter schools with, in the aggregate, students in charter schools not faring as well as students in traditional public schools.”
Systemic benefits are lacking - Of course, even where charters are doing well, the real issue is not just charter performance, but overall system performance. After all, the ultimate goal of charters is to serve as places in which replicable models for success can be developed.
On this count there is even less evidence that charters have any kind of measurable positive impact. This is almost assuredly due in large part to the fact that a lot of charter success is, by definition, extremely hard to replicate - that is, it is not a byproduct of how and what the schools teach, but of who attends the schools and who runs them.
It’s one thing to build a successful school with a unique leadership team and a group of parents and children who want to be there and to be involved. But the real trick is to build schools that are successful educating the mass of students - whoever walks in and out of the door - on a huge scale.
Anecdotal evidence is not enough - Charter school examples in which heroic and charismatic principals or teachers have wrung out miraculous results under incredibly difficult circumstances may be heartwarming and inspiring, but they are of little practical use to school system administrators who must deal with dozens of schools and tens of thousands of children on a tight budget. Once again, the trick is to find solutions that are replicable for the masses.
Failure shouldn’t be an option - Unfortunately, many charters are faring very poorly. In many instances, this is because, as any person who’s ever tried to care for another’s child over an extended period can attest, it’s one thing to critique another’s parenting (or teaching) performance, it’s quite another to do it yourself. In other words, running a successful school is hard work - a lot harder than it looks.
Ultimately, enthusiasm is no substitute for experience and training. Research indicates that for every charter that’s doing great, there’s at least one that’s failing. This figures - it’s what you might expect from an entrepreneurial model based on the business world. The problem, however, is that running a school system is not (or ought not to be) like running a company in which failure can simply be chalked up as a cost of doing business.
For all of its current problems and challenges, our traditional public education system is already educating more kids, more effectively than at any time in its history. For the most part, our administrators and principals and teachers know what to do. Their biggest need is not “competition” or “entrepreneurial innovation,” it’s resources - the resources it takes to attract, develop and keep good teachers, to provide one-on-one tutoring, to construct and maintain top-flight facilities, and to successfully integrate hundreds of thousands of kids spread across scores of far flung and segregated communities. When North Carolina lifts this “cap” - the cap that has allowed even the state’s wealthiest communities to fire teachers and raise class sizes in recent months - that will be the time that the state gets serious about dealing with what ails the public schools.
Rob Schofield is the Director of Research and Policy Development at N.C. Policy Watch.