There’s a lot of confusion these days about what charter schools are and what they aren’t. Some of the confusion is sewn deliberately by people who don’t like the idea of parents having a choice of where to send their children to school. Let’s set the record straight.
Charter schools are public schools. They’re open to any student who wants to attend and there are no tests required to enroll. The only limit to charter school enrollment is available space. What makes charter schools special is that they offer different academic focuses, such as science or arts or classical education, because different children learn in different ways. And if charter schools don’t meet expectations, or parents don’t want to enroll their children, they close—the ultimate in accountability.
Charter schools are funded by taxpayers, just like other public schools. When parents enroll their child in a charter school, the money used for the student’s education moves to the school he or she now attends. Critics falsely label this “taking money away from public schools.” Not true. It’s simply shifting money from one public school to another, the same way funding would shift from one school to another if a family moved to a new school district.
In fact, charter schools are at a funding disadvantage to other public schools. In North Carolina, charter schools don’t receive funding for the cost of facilities. A recent report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that of five common tools that states use to help charter schools pay for school buildings, North Carolina uses none.
Transportation is another hurdle. While charter schools do receive funding for transportation as part of their per-pupil funding, it can be cost-prohibitive for some schools to run buses because they draw students from multiple school districts. The Transportation Grant Pilot Program sought to reimburse charter schools for part of their transportation costs with only $2.5 million over two years; however, legislation was not successfully passed to continue the program. The need is clearly great, as last year 41 of North Carolina’s 185 charter schools applied for more than $3 million in funding. Expanding this program is a priority for the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools—and for the tens of thousands of families who would benefit.
Charter school critics have lately taken to maliciously blaming charter schools for segregation in public schools. This is both false and defamatory. Charter schools have been a lifeline for many families of color in North Carolina and elsewhere who finally have access to a public school that educates their children well.
In addition, a recent report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute looked specifically at North Carolina elementary schools—both district and charter—and found: “Traditional public schools and charter schools serve the same proportion of black students, but charter schools have about 35% more black teachers.” Furthermore, according to the study, “Black students in charter schools are about 50% more likely to have a black teacher than their traditional public school counterparts.” A growing body of evidence suggests that students of color benefit from having more teachers and school leaders who look like them. This is happening more frequently at North Carolina charter schools than in district schools.
This is one reason why families of color support charter schools. The most recent national poll from the journal "EducationNext" found that 55% of African-American Democrats favor charter schools, even at a time when several Democratic presidential candidates have been spreading false information about charter schools.
Families of color recognize that there is a huge difference between getting to choose the school your child attends and having your child forced into a school on account of their race. When critics conflate these concepts, they reveal their true intention, which is to destroy school choice.
The bottom line is that charter schools are about one simple, yet revolutionary, concept: offering options to families beyond what is available in their zip codes. Families with higher incomes have always been able to exercise school choice—they just move their children to a private school or move their family to a higher-end neighborhood with great public schools. Charter schools are extending the benefits of choice to families who want or need to keep their children enrolled in public schools and don’t have the means to pay higher house prices for better schools.
The families who choose to send their children to charter schools aren’t draining funding from public schools or weakening public schools or doing anything else the critics charge. They’re simply choosing which public school their child should attend. With better funding support for facilities and transportation, more North Carolina families could make the same choice.