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State report: N.C. charter schools work with fewer low-income children

Charter school backers in North Carolina oft argue that charter students outperform their traditional school peers.

Yet, critics of the schools—who argue charters in North Carolina tend to serve a very different, and altogether more affluent, population than traditional public schools—are likely to find fuel in a draft of an annual state report on charters set for presentation to the State Board of Education this week.

According to the report, charters’ percentage of students classified as “economically disadvantaged” remains significantly lower than their traditional public school peers (see page 9).

In 2015-2016, for instance, less than 30 percent of charter students were counted as low-income, far below the 50.2 percent counted in traditional schools.

Additionally, charters’ share of low-income children has been consistently on the decline since  it reached 39.6 percent in 2012-2013, at at time when traditional schools’ have reported fluctuations up and down.

The numbers were prepared by the state’s Office of Charter Schools, which oversees the state’s growing charter school sector.

The office also notes one major point of contention over these findings. Charter school supporters say they believe their count of economically disadvantaged students, which is self-reported, is an under-count.

From the report:

While charter schools do certify to NCDPI that the numbers they report are accurate, some schools have expressed concern that, since they must ask families to self-report income information to verify ED status, the figures may underrepresent the true ED population in a given school and across all charter schools. Charter schools that do not participate in the National Free and Reduced Lunch program, and therefore do not have that participation rate to use as a proxy for ED student status, may be most likely to report figures that underrepresent the true ED population at their schools. Improvements to this data collection are being mitigated through collaboration with the National School Lunch Program by using data available through the Direct Certification System for the 2016-17 school year.

The debate over equity in the state’s fast-growing charter school sector figures to only expand in the coming years, as state leaders continue to approve applications for new schools.

Charters, while they receive public funding, are granted greater flexibility in their curriculum and staffing. Yet, while state law directs charters to seek to replicate the racial or ethnic population of the districts they serve, the statutes do not mandate any consequences if a charter fails to do so.

Since the state’s 100-school cap was lifted in 2011, the total number of charters has risen to 167, located in more than half of the state’s 115 local school districts.

Accordingly, charters’ share of state dollars has been rising rapidly too, with the dollars diverted to charters soaring from just above $16 million in 1997 to more than $444 million in 2015-2016, according to the draft report.

Also of note in this year’s state report, student performance in North Carolina charters varies more than it does in traditional schools. While a greater percentage of all public charters earned an A+, the highest school performance grade, a higher percentage of charters also pulled in the lowest school performance grade possible (see page 13 of the report).

State Board of Education members are expected to mull the report at their Wednesday meeting.

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