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The sky isn’t falling on charter schools

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By Lee Teague

Whether it’s the people we associate with, the food we eat or the news we read, the trend for the past 60-plus years has been toward more diversity and more individual choice. The charter school movement is a part of that trend.

Charters were created to provide parents an alternative to the one-size-fits-all mentality that pervaded in public education. Their diversity reflects this. There are charters that specialize in the arts, science and language immersion. There are charters whose mission is to lift struggling students, and some that offer more rigorous preparation for college.

For those who cling to a one-size-fits-all mentality, a favorite tactic is to say things they’ve never liked used to be good but aren’t anymore. That is the tactic Linda Welborn, a member of the Guilford County Board of Education, used recently on these pages with her tirade against the “new charter school movement” (March 8).

Despite what some people think, parents are the best evaluators of whether their child receives a good education. They must choose for their kids to attend a charter. To Welborn, the parents of the 68,000 students already enrolled and the 44,000 more on waiting lists are bamboozled by “A-plus marketing.” But they can pull them out if they are not satisfied. And some do. Yet 85 percent of charters have waiting lists. Are all these parents so easily fooled?

The fact is the money going to charter schools is very transparent. A special division of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, called the Office of Charter Schools, or OCS, is dedicated to charter oversight, as is the Charter Schools Advisory Board. Charters must adhere to a lengthy charter contract with the state. They cannot even access their state dollars directly but instead must provide documentation before the state pays their bills. There are surprise visits by OCS consultants, an annual audit by a CPA firm and detailed review under the Financial Performance Framework Guide designed only for charter schools. They are subject to a host of laws and state and federal agencies. Nothing is going into “a black hole.”

Like Claude Rains in “Casablanca,” Welborn is “shocked, shocked” that people earn money providing education. Generations of educators, administrators and education suppliers have earned their daily bread educating children. If they do a good job, God bless ’em. They do important work. Good classroom teachers earn every dime they make and more.

She is especially vitriolic against management companies. If a company can front money for a facility, manage a school well enough that parents voluntarily send their children there, then still make a profit with access to only 75 percent of the money per pupil as traditional schools, I say more power to them. We need every good school we can get.

Traditional public schools will be the overwhelming choice of parents. They are the core of our educational system and deserve our support. But we know that not every student learns the same way. We are better off when parents have a choice that meets their child’s individual needs. The advocates for traditional schools should welcome charters to relieve overcrowding and provide more educational opportunity, not attack them. Name-calling gets us nowhere.

Lee Teague is the director of public relations and grass-roots development with the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association.

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