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Treat proven charter schools and untested ones differently

By Lee Teague
Special to the Observer

Everyone agrees we must provide a quality education to all of our children. However, many methods are offered to improve education. One gaining popularity is charter schools. More and more we are seeing that children learn in different ways. Charter schools provide more options for parents to find the best fit for their children.

This year 127 charter schools are educating more than 60,000 N.C. students with waiting lists likely to be near 40,000 students. They will be joined by 26 additional charter schools in 2014. That is adding only 10,000 children a year, a slow pace since there are 1.5 million K-12 N.C. students

Public resources are limited. With the economy listless, local officials are having trouble finding the funding to build schools and renovate existing ones. Mecklenburg voters this week passed $290 million in bonds for public schools, but that was smallest amount in a decade. In Union County, the school board and county commission are in court over school funding.

Charter schools receive no taxpayer assistance for facilities. They must squeeze their operating funds to adapt existing facilities and in some cases, build new facilities, in areas where school construction cannot keep up with growth or where older schools are in disrepair.

So if charter schools are part of the solution to improving education, how do we increase the number of high quality charter schools? One method other states use is to allow charter school operators with a proven track record of success to open more schools based on the same model. In North Carolina, this approach could increase the number of quality charter schools faster and enable them to serve more students.

It just makes sense, if something is working, to let it work elsewhere. For decades, American companies have been seeking to develop successful business models, then replicate and improve them. We should allow charter schools to do the same.

Our state’s process for approving new charter schools is necessarily arduous. After all, they will be receiving taxpayer dollars to perform one of our state’s most important tasks. However, should a strong network of schools or a proven stand-alone school have to go through the exact same process as a brand-new, untested charter school? That does not make sense.

North Carolina should develop a new process for current schools wishing to open new charter schools based on the same model. The first step would be to see that the current school has met a clearly-defined standard of success. While our state does have criteria for assessing charter performance, we could increase student access to great charter schools by establishing clear performance standards for charter school expansion and replication, then by implementing a streamlined process that maintains proper due diligence as an incentive for our best charter schools to expand.

We can have the best of both worlds: unique “community inspired” charters and public charters that come from a proven mold but are still driven by local supporters. “One size fits all” is no longer acceptable in educating children. Let’s recognize the fact that the same principle applies to how our charters are approved.

Lee Teague is the director of public relations for the North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association.

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