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State Board of Education hears report detailing declining count of low-income charter students

As we reported at Policy Watch Tuesday, a new state reports shows the percentage of North Carolina charter students classified as low-income is on the decline, exacerbating a significant gap between traditional public schools and their charter counterparts.

According to the draft state report, more than 50 percent of the students served by traditional public schools would be categorized as “economically disadvantaged.” But charters count less than 30 percent of their student body as low-income, a share that has dropped every year since 2012.

Given the well-documented correlation between students’ family income and academic performance, it’s only likely to fuel some traditional public school advocates’ arguments that charters are “cherrypicking” students to boost grades.

But on Wednesday, Dave Machado, director of the state’s Office of Charter Schools, told members of the State Board of Education that he believes he may have some explanation for the discrepancy.

Machado pointed out that, with some North Carolina charters not participating in free and reduced lunch programs for students, they are dependent on self-reporting from parents in order to get a count of their economically disadvantaged children.

Some parents, he argued, balk at volunteering such information. Thus, Machado says getting an accurate count of low-income kids was a “big problem” for him during the 11 years he ran a Lincoln County charter school before taking over the state charter office last year.

The charter director’s comments come as members of the state board prep their annual report to the N.C. General Assembly on the booming charter school sector in North Carolina.

The gap in low-income children was just one of a handful of highlights to the state report, which offered a snapshot of just how much the charter industry has grown over the last two decades. Compared to 1997, the report notes, the amount of public funding now directed toward charters has expanded from about $16 million to more than $444 million in 2015-2016.

Currently, the state counts 167 charters open, a fast rise since the 100-school cap was lifted in 2011 by school choice leaders in the legislature.

Meanwhile, members of the state board are fielding 32 renewal applications for charters with their applications set to expire this year, although the board is not expected to take a vote until next month, according to Becky Taylor, chair of the board’s charter school committee.

The board’s response to the applications should be worth monitoring, as members of the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) recommended some form of renewal for 30 of those schools, excluding a Durham school accused late last year of handing out unearned diplomas.

Members of both panels clashed publicly last year when the state board did not go along with the recommendations of a handful of new charter applicants backed by the CSAB.

However, Taylor, an appointee of former Gov. Pat McCrory, complimented the CSAB for its work on Wednesday.

“It wasn’t just an automatic ‘renew,'” said Taylor. “(There was) a lot of thought, a lot of oversight, holding them accountable and we thank you for that.”

Board members can approve up to a ten-year renewal for the schools, but the recommendations received Wednesday included four schools earning just a three-year renewal recommendation from the CSAB.

CSAB Chair Alex Quigley said Wednesday that his board hands down such limited renewals to schools in order to indicate that “there are some things you need to improve.”

New DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

New DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

Also of note Wednesday, the state board meeting was the first for new Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Mark Johnson. Johnson is at the center of a pending legal dispute between the state board and the legislature over the powers of the office.

Lawmakers moved to consolidate power in the new GOP superintendent’s office in December, prompting claims by state board members that the new law was “unconstitutional.”

Among the legislature’s moves, Johnson would gain greater hiring powers and management of the state charter office. He would also be able to appoint the leader of the controversial achievement school district, a GOP-championed reform passed last year that could shuttle management of some low-performing schools to for-profit charter operators.

Board members aren’t saying much about the legal battle this week, which isn’t surprising given litigation is ongoing. A Superior Court judge is expected to consider Friday whether to block enforcement until courts weigh in on the constitutionality of the law.

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