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N.C. must approach charter school growth with caution

By Frank Martin
Special to the Observer

This month, North Carolina’s Office of Charter Schools received 71 applications for public charter schools proposing to open in fall of 2015. This is roughly the same number of applications received in the last round, but represents more than 50 percent of the total number of charter schools already operating across the state.

The state Board of Education approved 26 applications on Thursday. As a board member for 15 years of one of Charlotte’s oldest and largest charters, I am a firm believer in charters as a component of North Carolina’s public education system. I am also, however, concerned at the rapid growth in the number of charter schools.

Charter schools give parents choice. While choice, per se, does not make a school better, competition generally does. Faced with a loss of students that could lead to painful staff and facility reductions, the local educational authority redoubles its efforts to give each of its students the best possible education.

All students benefit.

A local example is the two high school programs for advanced manufacturing to be offered in southwest Mecklenburg County. A new charter based around such a curriculum has been approved. Its initiation has stirred Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to offer a similar program within an existing high school. In future years, both schools will be better because they compete with one another.

Because charters are generally single-campus entities with a board overseeing only that single school, the school leader is likely to enjoy greater empowerment and greater accountability than he or she might in a multi-school system. This structure will allow the gifted principal to flourish. A weaker school leader, however, will lack the organizational support that a larger school system can provide.

Charter schools can provide students who often fall through the cracks in traditional public schools the opportunity to succeed. But to realize that opportunity, the state should set high standards for approval. It should be rigorous in examining each applicant’s ability to achieve financially sound operations and academic excellence; it should give priority to applicants with plans to serve high-needs students; and it should assure that applicants will provide access to those students.

For a school to serve students from low income families, it must provide transportation. Seventy percent of the students at the school on whose board I serve come to school each day on the bus. Many come from single-parent households whose head is subject to the inflexible schedule of the wage earner. Some families do not own a car. Without adequate bus service, our students could not attend our school. This situation is typical among low-income families. For this reason, every charter should offer transportation for all of its students, and the state should provide the funding to support this requirement.

As charter applications are considered and approved, education and political leaders have the opportunity to further refine North Carolina’s charter school vision. Wise policies and decisions will help assure that every N.C. child has access to an excellent public school.

Frank Martin is board chair of Sugar Creek Charter School in Charlotte.

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