Charter school advocates’ obsession with small federal grant program continues to distract from efforts to provide charter students the funding they’re owed

Look at the chart below. Which is larger, the column on the left or the column on the right?

If you answered, “the column on the right” – potential funding increase for charter schools under Leandro – you would be correct. The $405 million of new funding that charters stand to gain from the long-running Leandro court case is more than 61 times the $6.6 million that North Carolina charter schools currently receive through federal Charter School Program (CSP) grants on an annualized basis.

You wouldn’t know this by listening to North Carolina’s leading charter school advocates who have been railing about proposed changes to CSP rules while keeping weirdly silent on the benefits Leandro. This misguided focus continues to undermine efforts to get charter school students the vital school supports they are owed under our state constitution.

As a reminder, Leandro is a 28-year-long court case establishing that North Carolina schools – including charters – are dramatically underfunded. Our state constitution guarantees all students the right to a “sound basic education,” yet lawmakers continue to fail to meet this basic standard. The courts have ordered North Carolina lawmakers to implement a detailed, research-based plan that would provide charter schools an approximately 45 percent increase in state funding by the 2028 school year.

The federal CSP grant provides supplemental funding for North Carolina charters ostensibly “focused on meeting the needs of educationally disadvantaged students.” North Carolina has awarded 61 of the state’s 203 charter schools five-year grants totaling $33 million. Funding for this program remains unchanged under the Biden Administration. However, the Biden Administration recently unveiled potential rule changes that have driven the charter community into a collective conniption. Their anger belies the modest nature of the proposed rule changes, which are largely centered on prioritizing grants for schools that innovate, collaborate with their community, and avoid contributing to racial segregation.

For some reason though, the North Carolina charter community continues to focus on the proposed CSP changes, while staying silent on the much larger issue of whether or not legislators will fulfill their constitutional duty to provide students with access to “sound basic” schools.

For example… Read more

Charter school advocates tell on themselves with whining over federal program changes

The Biden administration has proposed some modest and commonsense rules for the nation’s charter schools.

Advocates for charter schools have long justified the existence of charters by claiming they serve as laboratories of innovation for traditional schools. They have claimed that operational flexibility and exemption from regulation allows them to operate more efficiently than traditional public schools. And they have claimed that they are not only willing – but better suited – to serve students from families with low incomes.

These premises have been disproven over the course of North Carolina’s nearly 30-year-long experiment with charter schools. There are no examples of charter school innovations that have offered new approaches for traditional schools (after all, traditional schools can’t follow the example of “successful” charters that garner high test scores by pushing out struggling students). Nor have charters delivered efficiency gains. Charters spend substantially more on administration than their traditional school counterparts. Most North Carolina charters outspend their neighboring traditional schools while serving a more advantaged student population and delivering weaker academic outcomes. Meanwhile, North Carolina charters continue to exacerbate racial segregation and raise costs for traditional inclusive public schools.

Charter advocates have long disputed the overwhelming evidence of their ineffectiveness. But now, they are making the case themselves.

At issue are recent changes to the terms of the federal Charter School Program (CSP) grant programs. The CSP provides money to states to run grant programs, “to open and prepare for the operation of new charter schools and to replicate and expand high-quality charter schools.” North Carolina was awarded these federal grant funds specifically to support charters, “focused on meeting the needs of educationally disadvantaged students.”

Unfortunately, the program run by North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction has failed to meet these goals. Much of the federal funding has been awarded to schools with a history of serving as white flight charter schools and that enroll substantially fewer students from families with low incomes than nearby inclusive public schools. Incredibly, Torchlight Academy was awarded a $500,000 grant in 2020. Just two years later, this school has had its charter revoked for rampant corruption and poor student results.

Rather than eliminating the CSP entirely, the Biden administration has proposed a few incredibly modest changes to the program’s terms:

  1. Preclude CSP funding for charters being operated by for-profit corporations
  2. Give priority to applications that feature “community school” elements and for those that provide evidence of cooperation or collaborations with the local school district
  3. Require a “community impact” analysis that explains why the school would be beneficial in serving the community
  4. Require schools to report on student demographics and how the charter impacts district diversity

These changes have been met with outrage from charter supporters, who have described the proposal as a “sneak attack,” an act of “sabotage,” and “war.” Superintendent Catherine Truitt filed a public comment railing against these changes, claiming, “if implemented, the proposed rules would have a detrimental effect on the expansion of high-quality charter schools in North Carolina.”

Really?

NC Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt’s complaints about new proposed charter school rules betray some damning truths.

Are high-quality charters unwilling to operate if they can no longer divert as much money as possible into the pockets of corporations? Are charters unwilling to serve as laboratories for innovation that work with traditional public schools to expand promising practices? Are charters unable to craft community impact statements because they are unable to demonstrate community benefits? Are they unwilling to commit to greater school integration efforts because they’d rather effectively pick and choose who their students are?

By opposing the CSP rule changes, charter supporters are implicitly answering the above questions in the affirmative. Their protests affirm the arguments made by charter critics that such schools are overly focused on profit-hoarding, unable to serve as collaborative partners in developing and scaling instructional innovation, exacerbate budget challenges, and contribute to segregation.

The proposed CSP rule changes do not in any way undermine charter schools. They simply ask charters seeking supplemental federal funds to try to live up to the promises made by charter advocates. The protests of charter advocates indicate that – as many of us have been arguing for years – charter schools are largely unable to live up to these promises.

And if charters are – as they now admit – unable to meet these promises, then policymakers should question not just whether they deserve supplemental federal funding through the CSP…but whether such schools are deserving of public funding at all.

Kris Nordstrom is a senior policy analyst in the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.

State schools Superintendent largely ignores recommendations to strengthen and diversify her new Parent Advisory Commission

At the end of March, Every Child NC, a community-led, statewide coalition of organizations, parents, teachers, and students who advocate for every child’s constitutional right to a sound, basic education, sent a letter to state schools Superintendent Catherine Truitt with recommendations that would have strengthened Truitt’s new Parent Advisory Commission. Unfortunately, recent reporting has shown that Truitt ignored these recommendations. As a result, the commission is unlikely to represent the diverse stakeholders who are engaged in North Carolina’s schools.

The coalition’s recommendations sought to make commission membership more accessible and representative. Unfortunately, Truitt ignored the following recommendations:

  • Making the application to serve, all subsequent documents, and both the review and selection process available to the public in Spanish, and ensuring language accessibility in all commission meetings, events and reports;
  • Removing the requirement that all candidates receive a recommendation from either school personnel or a public figure;
  • Ensuring that the commission is designed with an intention to be inclusive of significant and proportional minority representation and to make public the mechanisms by which such representation is achieved;
  • Rethinking and reframing the composition of the commission so that public school families are adequately, equitably, and proportionally represented (currently, only one-third of the seats on the commission are guaranteed to parents of traditional public school students even though about 80 percent of children attend a traditional inclusive public school); and
  • Opening commission participation to educators and students.

Every Child NC’s concerns were clearly prescient. We learned last week that nearly 80% of applications were thrown out for being “incomplete.”

The coalition further recommended that Truitt ensure the commission operates effectively, equitably and transparently by taking the following steps:

  • Creating a plan to compensate commission members for their time, travel and childcare, to encourage a more economically diverse commission profile;
  • Providing commission members with the technology appropriate to ensure that they may participate in virtual meetings, and for DPI to commit to hold in-person meetings in different regions throughout the state, to provide equity in access for families who would prefer in-person engagement but who cannot participate in extensive travel;
  • Releasing the selection rubric used to evaluate applicants, the specific process by which commission members will be selected, and the names of the people responsible both for screening applications and for making final decisions on commission appointments, and being open to suggestions for improvement to the rubric that has been selected;
  • Making public the answers of all selected applicants so that all North Carolinians may evaluate for themselves whether the commission represents the state’s ideological diversity;
  • Providing a clear statement addressing how changes to commission membership will be handled.

Truitt has released the names of the DPI staffers who will review applications. But Truitt has yet to publicly commit to any of the remaining steps.

Truitt created the commission to “elevate the voice of parents in students’ education.” Her decision to ignore Every Child NC’s recommendations reveals a lamentable preference to elevate the voices of privileged over the voices of the families who have historically been excluded from public education policymaking.

With no selections having yet been made, it’s not too late to start over with a process that incorporates Every Child NC’s recommendations to ensure the commission will truly speak for all of North Carolina’s students.

Kris Nordstrom is a senior policy analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project. Note: the Justice Center — parent organization to NC Policy Watch — is a member of Every Child NC.

New report documents North Carolina’s ongoing school finance shortcomings

A new report confirms what policymakers have long known: North Carolina’s school funding system is among the country’s worst.

Last week, some of the nation’s top school finance experts from the Albert Shanker Institute and Rutgers University published the latest edition of their annual report “The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems.” Similar to October’s report from the Education Law Center, this new report examines each state along three measures of school funding: fiscal effort, adequacy, and progressivity.

In addition to the full report, the researchers have published state profiles (click here for North Carolina), and a wealth of data visualization tools.

According to the analysis, North Carolina’s school finance system receives poor marks for fiscal effort and adequacy. The state gets average marks for progressivity.

In terms of effort, North Carolina dedicated just 2.77 percent of it’s economic capacity (GSP) to public schools in FY 2019, compared to 3.45 percent in the average state. With a 2019 GSP of $591 billion, this implies that North Carolina would have needed to increase its school spending by over $4 billion to make the average effort of other states.

In terms of funding adequacy, the report found spending inadequate across the board, with 84.4 percent of students attend districts with inadequate spending levels. The problem is particularly dire in North Carolina’s highest-poverty districts. Spending in highest-poverty districts is estimated to be 40 percent ($7,017 per pupil) below the levels estimated necessary to meet the low bar of U.S. average test scores.

North Carolina receives moderately positive marks for progressivity. Higher-poverty districts receive 7.2 percent more revenue than zero-poverty districts. As explained above, however, this mild degree of progressivity is far below what’s estimated necessary to achieve national average levels of student achievement.

The authors assign North Carolina’s school finance system an overall score that ranks a lowly 46th out of the 48 states with possible ratings. Read more