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Charter hoopla: Let’s do it right

It’s called StudentFirst Academy but that, sadly, is a tragic misnomer.

Leaders of the charter school on Tuckaseegee Road in west Charlotte put many things before students, such as giving themselves large raises. Now the financial problems run so deep that the school will close next week.

Among the most innocent victims? About 270 children who have no place to go to school with two months left in the year.

StudentFirst’s demise is a wretched tale thoroughly reported by the Observer’s Ann Doss Helms. Within months of opening, the school was plagued with allegations of financial mismanagement, secret $25,000 raises, nepotism and students napping for hours at a time in class. There’s blame enough to go around, but the result of all these adults’ machinations is children utterly failed by their state and community on a most basic need: education.

The charter school opened with great promise of the dynamic experience it would provide underprivileged children. The hoopla is an echo increasingly being heard statewide these days, as North Carolina’s legislature and special interest groups aggressively propagate charter schools. They are part of a “choice” movement that sees the free market as the panacea for improving public schools.

Public schools need improving, to be sure, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with charter schools. There are many outstanding ones across the state. But in the legislature’s mad rush to double or triple the number of charters in a very short time, the StudentFirst debacle should encourage a pause to determine how things could be done better.

For years, North Carolina had a statewide cap of 100 charter schools. After the legislature lifted it, 23 new ones opened last August and 26 more have been approved to open next August. The state is considering 71 applications from organizers hoping to open in the fall of 2015.

Managing that flood is an understaffed Office of Charter Schools and a Charter School Advisory Board and state Board of Education inclined to support charters. Those officials and legislators should strengthen the application process to help avoid the next StudentFirst. They should ensure the system includes rigorous reporting requirements and a staff big enough to monitor schools’ progress.

We should not accept as inevitable that those 270 StudentFirst students would be let down. Nor is it inevitable that charter school supporters and public school supporters be pitted against each other in an ideological battle. Charter schools were created to strengthen public schools, not eviscerate them. It’s time political and education leaders remember: Put the Student First.

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