Last week, the North Carolina House passed bill 856 which modifies the cap on public charter schools from 100 to 106. It now moves on to the State Senate. At present, there are 97 public charter schools serving approximately 33,000 students throughout the state.
HB 856 is a step in the right direction, but much too small of one. Today, more than 16,000 children throughout North Carolina are on waiting lists for public charter schools. We would need at least 20 new schools right now just to meet current demand.
Not only would the proposed modest cap change still leave thousands of children on waiting lists, there is a significant financial cost as well. At a time when the state is scrambling to find revenue to fund schools, lifting the cap by only six would place the state at a disadvantage for subsequent rounds of federal stimulus funding and severely limit the amount of funds North Carolina could receive from US Dept of Ed Charter School Program.
Additionally, North Carolina stands to miss out on a number of innovative national education initiatives and substantial national private foundation money, certain to go to states more receptive to charter growth instead.
While the North Carolina Alliance of Public Charter Schools would like to see a complete lift of the cap, it is currently focusing its efforts on pushing for recommendations outlined by the Blue Ribbon Commission, a group of education leaders appointed by the North Carolina State Board of Education in 2007 to examine public charter schools in the state.
The Commission recommendations include approving up to six new public charter schools each year, allowing public charters with a proven track record of success (particularly those successful in closing the achievement gap for at-risk students) to replicate without counting towards the cap and allowing the first public charter school in a county without a charter school to not count towards the cap.
Most North Carolinians want the cap lifted. In fact, according to a public opinion survey recently released, nearly two-thirds of North Carolina voters (65 percent) favor the state legislature passing a law to lift the current cap on public charter schools.
The survey also found that support for lifting the cap cut across party lines—65 percent of registered Democrats favor increasing the number of charter schools, as does 70 percent of unaffiliated voters and 61 percent of Republicans.
President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have both enthusiastically come out in support of increasing the number of public charter schools.
Most states across the nation have recognized that there is a critical need to try new and innovative approaches to improving student achievement in our public schools. Public charter schools give parents choices within the public school system. They have the flexibility to try innovative ways of improving learning with the goal of sharing what works with the broader public school system so that all students benefit.
Public charter schools are held to higher standards of accountability than traditional public schools. Not only are they accountable to the families that chose them, they’re also accountable to their authorizer, the State Board of Education, who can close down the school if it doesn’t meet its fiscal and operational goals.
High quality public charter schools are good for children. And good for North Carolina. By lifting the cap on public charter schools, we all gain.
Stephen Raburn is acting executive director for the North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
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