Are charter schools a panacea? State scores suggest not

The Observer editorial board

Lake Norman Charter, which Lindsey Moore attends, is one of the state’s best.
Lake Norman Charter, which Lindsey Moore attends, is one of the state’s best. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

For years, charter school advocates have tried to convince us that the independently run schools are generally superior to traditional public schools. Free to innovate, they are a particularly attractive option for kids trapped in the poorest schools, their backers argue.

For years, we have recognized the potential and delighted in the successes. Yet we have also seen that they are no panacea. There are strong charter schools and weak ones, just like traditional public schools. Rather than embracing a blind devotion to charters, adults would best serve students by studying the most effective ones and applying their tools to far more campuses.

On Thursday, the newest evidence emerged that there’s nothing magic about charter schools. The state Department of Public Instruction released letter grades for each public school, based on the school’s academic performance and growth.

As the Observer’s Ann Doss Helms reported, charter schools in Mecklenburg County generally fared worse than traditional Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Eight of 34 charter schools earned an F, or nearly one in four. Just five of 165 traditional public schools (3 percent) earned an F.

Eleven of 34 charter schools received an A or B (32 percent), compared with 67 of 165 traditional schools (41 percent).

A third of charter schools in Mecklenburg failed to meet expected academic growth. Just 14 percent of traditional CMS schools failed on that measure.

To be sure, there are flaws in the state’s grading system. And student body traits at certain schools may further explain their performance. But Thursday’s numbers confirm that charter schools are not, generally speaking, clearly superior to traditional schools.

Charter schools started in 1991 in Minnesota, with Democrats leading the push for their authorization through the legislature. They saw them as a way to experiment and innovate without all the regulations other schools faced. Somewhere along the way, they became a favorite of Republicans while Democrats tend to be protective of traditional public schools.

Educating children well should be a bipartisan goal, of course. Both parties should see that the best charter schools can contribute mightily to that while the rest need to shape up or shut down.