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School choice plays growing role in Charlotte’s education scene, panel says

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School choice plays a growing role in the quest to educate all students in the Charlotte region, speakers told more than 100 people gathered Saturday for a forum on the future of public education.

In the past, public education was synonymous with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Superintendent Heath Morrison was one of the speakers at the session organized by Staying Ahead Carolina, a social networking group. But he was joined by Eddie Goodall of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association and state Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, co-sponsor of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Act, which will provide income-based vouchers to pay private school tuition starting in 2014.

All of them, along with Bill Anderson of the nonprofit advocacy group MeckEd, agreed that families want high-quality choices for their children. But they voiced different views on the benefits and drawbacks of North Carolina’s options.

“Parents like choice. That shows up on every survey, across the state and across the country,” Morrison said. “We have to make sure that there’s quality as well as quantity.”

Staying Ahead Carolina, a nonpartisan group that has previously focused on noneducation issues such as arts and health, convened the forum at UNC Charlotte Center City to talk about choices, challenges and changes in public education.

Morrison said CMS is working to ensure that each student has at least two high-quality options within CMS, including a neighborhood school and a growing menu of magnets. And he praised the state legislature for lifting the “silly” 100-school cap on charter schools, which are public schools run by independent boards.

Traditional public schools and charters are required to give students state exams and report the results. Proficiency rates plunged at many of those schools when the state released results of tougher new exams on Thursday.

Morrison questioned the decision to let private schools take tax money without having to participate in the same accountability system. And he said the $4,200 N.C. Opportunity Scholarships being offered for students who qualify for lunch subsidies won’t cover tuition at most Charlotte-area private schools.

Anderson seconded that concern: “I worry that there are going to be some schools that will start up that are going to be below standard.”

Bryan said public money will be only a small portion of a private school’s budget, and said he expects schools and community donors to help low-income students attend. “Parents are the ultimate form of accountability,” he said.

Morrison said he’d like the option for CMS to create its own charter schools, which would have more flexibility than traditional schools on teacher pay and school calendars. State law currently does not allow that. Bryan and Goodall both voiced support for that idea.

All speakers said options can be good for students and families, and spoke about the value of working together. But the tension underlying the competition between options also showed up.

Bryan said research has proven that vouchers in other states improve public education, and said he’d share that research with anyone who wants it.

Morrison said he’d met with Bryan recently and asked for that research, but he hasn’t gotten it. Bryan countered that Morrison had also failed to share research he has cited.

“I don’t remember that,” Morrison said.

“Convenient,” Bryan said.

An audience member cited a recent piece by CMS lawyer Jonathan Sink on the Observer’s opinion page arguing that school districts should have flexibility to set their own calendars. Sink’s piece contends that high schools could benefit from an earlier opening date that would place midyear exams before Christmas break. The audience member asked whether panelists agree and whether the state would be willing to modify the law restricting when school years can begin and end.

Morrison said that if he could get that flexibility, even for just the high-poverty schools, he could provide academic gains by reducing the long summer break that often leads to learning loss. “Give us flexibility and we’ll give you improvement with no extra money,” he said.

Bryan said he likes the idea of calendar flexibility.

The calendar law was backed by the tourism industry, which argued that a uniform summer break benefits businesses that rely on student workers and family vacations.

State Sen. Joel Ford, a Mecklenburg Democrat who was in the audience, stood up to add his support for local flexibility. “When I learned that the tourism industry set our school calendar, it just floored me,” he said.

The answer, Ford said, is for Mecklenburg residents to get more involved in lobbying for their issues. “It begins in 2014,” he said.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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