Are charter schools smarter schools?

In response to widespread concern about educational mediocrity and the performance of the state’s public schools, the N.C. General Assembly passed legislation in 1996 authorizing charter schools — no more than five in any local district and no more than 100 statewide. This year, a bill has been introduced that seeks to remove the cap on the number of charter schools permitted to operate within the state. Overall, the movement toward charter schools, vouchers, new forms of public/private schooling, home schooling and “market solutions” to educational problems represents the greatest threat to public education in more than a century.

Those who favor such alternatives to public education have mixed motives, some less praiseworthy than others. Much of the impulse for reform stems from the public schools’ mediocre performance over the last decade, and from parents who both attended and traditionally have supported public education. Almost all the qualitative changes in education in North Carolina have come since the 1980s. By the mid-199Os, students in the state’s public schools showed improved yet still unimpressive SAT scores (compared to national averages), flat peformance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and persistent underachievement by minorities and the poor. These factors prompted the movement toward alternatives to public schools. But after such a promising start, the lack of progress in the last few years has sparked widespread concern among several groups.

Increasingly, the uneven quality of education across the state — particularly the contrast between schools in well-to-do suburbs, poor eastern counties and the inner city — has become a troubling public-policy issue. Should public monies be used to help poorer schools statewide? Moreover, with the establishment of high-tech businesses and sophisticated workplaces across the state, corporations as well as educators wanted to improve the quality and competitiveness of the work force, traditionally a problem in recruiting and training labor in a global economy.

Many North Carolinians simply want their children’s education to emphasize technologies, analytical thinking and problem-solving skills, to prepare them for success in the marketplace or in college. Others want more equitable educational opportunities for all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, status or socioeconomic conditions. (As one cynic remarked, you can predict students’ probable chances of attending and completing college, along with their lifetime incomes, by looking at their ZIP codes, not at the schools they attended.)

Less praiseworthy than these is an older motive, long residual in the state’s history, that has surfaced once again: the often poorly disguised attempt to undermine confidence in the capacity of the state’s schools to carry out their complex institutional mission. For every governor since the 1980s who has called for higher salaries for teachers, for another start-up program, or for curriculum revisions, other political office-seekers and savants have insisted on more tests for teachers, more alternative forms of certification, more end-of-year testing, the abolition of departments and schools of education, more alternative forms for schools, more accountability, and less of a “government monopoly” on education.

Following the lead of John Chubb and Terry Moe — two social scientists who published the widely read Politics, Markets, and American Schools a decade ago — these reformists wanted a marketplace approach to education in which schools would compete for students and be assessed in terms of their students’ performance on standardized tests. Chubb and Moe also recommended that tax-paying parents should be able to use public money to send their children to private schools. Moreover, they asserted, states should consider funding a variety of less-regulated, publicly funded schools chartered for specific purposes. Choice became the sacred song of the reformers and the recessional hymn for public education. Thus, the General Assembly passed the charter-school bill in 1996 and, since then, has vigorously debated issuing vouchers that could be used to pay students’ tuition at private schools.

Yet education extends far beyond the walls of schools and the pages of books and the screens of computers. And smarter schools may not necessarily be better schools for most state residents, or for the state as a whole. Schools — especially public ones — have both a historic and a continuing importance for North Carolinians that may become even greater in the future.

Ever since the founding of the colony in 1663, residents of North Carolina have been reluctant to entrust any of their institutions — religious, educational or familial — to government. Indeed, it took more than two centuries for a viable public system of education to emerge and compete with the private academies and denominational schools (the charter schools of their day). And even after an inclusive public system of education was founded in 1869, North Carolinians continued to display a latent mistrust of government’s ability to address the corrosive effects of poverty, race and social inequality through education, or to find teachers and administrators who would shape our children in reassuring ways.

Today, the growing skepticism about government and its role in education has unleashed a rising tide of private and even trivial educational pursuits. A great many North Carolinians, against their better inclinations and historic support of public education, have taken their children out of the public schools, either home-schooling them or else creating their own educational “asylums.” Such paroxysms of choice characterized education in North Carolina before it arrived at the present system which, while it is rife with mediocrity and riddled with excellence, has shown remarkable progress in little more than a century. Charter schools are not smarter schools for North Carolina.

[Milton Ready is a professor of history at UNCA.]

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