Skip to main content In North Carolina, Charter Schools Force ‘Zero-Sum’ Education

There are a lot of differences of opinion on charter schools, but one thing objective observers can agree on is they are divisive. As charter schools have grown more numerous, they’ve become increasingly unpopular, across political ideologies, and in community after community, their expansions now spark immediate opposition.

North Carolina is no exception. At a recent forum in Raleigh, held by the News & Observer and the local ABC affiliate, a panel of three charter proponents and two charter skeptics found scant room for compromise.

Moderator Ned Barnett, editorial page director of the News & Observer, asked the panel to address how best charters can provide a “sound and basic” system of education. In one particularly sharp exchange on that subject, Lisa Gordon Stella, a Durham attorney and co-chair of the North Carolina Association of Public Charter Schools, declared there was “nothing sacrosanct about a centralized and uniform system of schools.”

“No one said uniform,” interrupted Duke University economics professor and charter critic Helen Ladd.

“I didn’t interrupt you,” Stella shot back.

Things didn’t calm down when the meeting shifted to Q&A, as audience members challenged the accuracy of data presented by the panelists and made declarations of support for different systems of education.

But one Raleigh mom, who sent her children to public schools and charters, said she was satisfied with both. “Why are we talking about this as a zero-sum issue?” she asked.

This is an especially important question in North Carolina, where state lawmakers have intensified the scramble for scarce education dollars by chronically shorting schools, and more recently, refusing to consider the inadequacy of education funding.

But the issue is also relevant throughout the nation. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos insists the country must transform education policies to “focus everything about education on individual students – funding, supporting, and investing in them. Not in buildings; not in systems.”

In DeVos’s brave new world where “money follows the child”from one school to another, schools and communities will increasingly see education as a zero-sum affair, where every student gained is a plus in the financial ledger and every student lost is a minus.

How can communities hope to come together on a matter that by its very design creates winners and losers?

The Historical Context

The truth is, education has always been a zero-sum game in the Tar Heel state.

In the post-Civil War years, white conservatives were generally opposed to public schools, historian, university professor, and author Timothy Tyson told me in an interview for a previous article in The Progressive. They regarded education as belonging to the privileged class who could afford to pay for it.

But after the state constitution was rewritten during Reconstruction, its requirement to provide a “sound and basic” education was inserted into the document—the obligation Barnett referred to in kicking off the public forum. After that change, however, the education have and have-nots became defined by race, as African Americans were excluded from white schools and educated in separate and unequal schools.

Tyson, who also serves as the Education Director of the North Carolina NAACP, describes the landmark Supreme Court Brown v Board decision as the turning point in extending education opportunities to African American students. But he calls the ideology driving charter school expansions in the state “confused” and is increasingly concerned it takes emphasis away from a unified and equitable system of education.

“Richer and Whiter”

Tyson’s concerns are well founded. A recent article by the News & Observer that preceded its town forum reported that charter schools in the state are “richer and whiter” than traditional public schools.

One reason charter schools tend to be whiter and wealthier is because the state’s school rating system incentivizes them to be, college professor Dana Thompson Dorsey told me in an interview at her office at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (Dorsey now works at the University of Pittsburgh).

North Carolina’s A-F grading system for schools is so closelycorrelated with the income of the students in the schools, that schools with whiter, wealthier enrollments generally get better ratings. “It’s a bottom line approach to education,” she told me, that encourages schools to be more selective of students they enroll and retain.

In the case of charters, the state allows them to forego offering free transportation, free meals, and after school programs that lower-income parents need, Dorsey explained. If you’re a parent who relies on those things, she said, “you don’t enter the lottery to get into the charter. It doesn’t fit your wallet.”

Thus, as schools compete to attract a limited number of better-performing students in any given geographic area, it’s not just the funding but the students themselves who become part of the zero-sum contest.

More Questions than Conclusions

Not all North Carolina charter schools sort and select their students that way.

A panelist at the event, Tawannah Allen, an associate professor who serves on the board of Global Scholars Academy charter school in Durham, said her charter school is an exception.

Global Scholars, the News & Observer reports, has 200 K-8 students roughly half of whom are black, half are Latino, and virtually all are low-income. Nevertheless, the school has tallied significant improvements on state assessments over the past two years.

However, exceptions in the charter sector always draw more questions than conclusions.

Is Global Scholars merely using a different method to select its students, for instance, by screening out students with disabilities? Would it be economically feasible to scale up a program like Global Scholars – which relies on small class sizes, extended school days, and extra-curricular programs like chess, archery, and Lego engineering – without scaling back other costs, such as teacher salaries and benefits?

These are not questions charter school proponents are always willing to address directly. On the issue of accepting students with disabilities, Pamela Blizzard—a panelist who founded Research Triangle High School, another Durham-based charter school—stated during the panel that it was “not fair” for charter schools to have the same percentages and severity of special education students that local public schools have.

Halifax to Chapel Hill

“You can’t blame parents for putting the interests of their children first,” Tyson told me, “but we also have to attend to the health of the whole system.”

Tyson expressed concern with any “ideology” that emphasizes parent choice over other priorities. “Public education is a civic good that transcends an economic/consumer model,” he told me. “Children in Halifax County [a rural low-income community in eastern North Carolina] are just as much our children as the children of Chapel Hill [an affluent college town in the state].”

Charter school enthusiasts like Secretary DeVos and Lisa Gordon Stella simply do not see things that way. Echoing DeVos, Stella called public schools a “failure” during a heated exchange with Durham School Board Member Natalie Beyer. Stella said charters had become a “21st century” way to operate schools.

Charter schools are “a way to make money off North Carolina students,” Beyer countered. “They’re not about creating pockets of improvement. They’re a national effort to privatize schools.” When asked what she would want instead, Beyer said charter schools should be more accountable to a district and to the state.

“We are accountable,” Stella disagreed. “But we’re accountable only to the students in our buildings and not to the students in schools across town.”

That might sound okay with you if you live in Chapel Hill. But if you happen to live in Halifax, well, you’re on your own.

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging cen...