Charter schools enjoy strong support in Mecklenburg County and across North Carolina. Last month, every gubernatorial candidate supported expanding the state’s charter sector. Statewide data show that more charter students are at grade level proficiency than public school students at nearly every level. So the 13 new charters approved statewide for 2017 and the fact that Mecklenburg’s charters are seeing faster growth than its district schools seem like great news.
However, charters aren’t popular everywhere. The NAACP has called for a national moratorium on charters, claiming that they lack accountability and take the most advantaged students, to the harm of nearby district schools. Charter supporters, on the other hand, argue that they purposefully serve the least advantaged students who are poorly served in district schools.
Both sides are telling the truth. Nationwide, there are many charters that serve far more poor students than nearby district schools, and just as many that serve far fewer. Nationally, these extremes tend to balance each other out. But North Carolina’s sector is one of the least balanced in the nation.
It can be difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons because charters are typically located in urban areas, which often have higher poverty rates, while district schools cover the map. The fairest way to study charter schools is to compare them to their closest district school neighbors. My research shows that in over 70 percent of N.C. charter schools, poverty rates are more than 5 percent lower than in their neighbors, the biggest poverty disparity in any state. Over half of the state’s charters serve a student body with poverty rates that are lower by more than 20 percentage points.
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What’s more, North Carolina charters serve fewer black, Hispanic, and limited English proficient students than their district school neighbors. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that charters have much higher proficiency rates than neighboring district schools.
Charter schools can work for all students, and have in many states. Not all North Carolina charters fit this pattern, but too many separate advantaged and disadvantaged students, justifying more than any other state in the country critics’ concerns that charter schools serve the more advantaged while further segregating the system as a whole.
History and the law have made clear that separate schools are not equal. North Carolina’s Department of Education and its charter schools must ensure the benefits of charters are available to all kinds of students.
Nat Malkus is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.