Since the election of Republican legislative majorities in 2010, charter schools have enjoyed a winning streak of pro-charter legislation and policy. Those victories included the removal of the 100-school cap, more generous allowances for grade and enrollment expansion, and a much-improved charter application and approval process. While a handful of their concerns have not been addressed, the charter school movement is in a better place now than it was a decade ago.
But success often leads to complacency, and I fear that the charter school movement in North Carolina has become much too comfortable for its own good.
Indeed, a wave election in 2018 may put these hard-fought gains at risk. As PolitiFact notes, “presidential party’s loss of seats further down the ballot is one of the most ironclad rules of American politics.” So, it was no surprise that at least 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates flipped from Republican to Democratic in elections held earlier this month. That outcome may be a preview of what’s to come next year in North Carolina.
One may dismiss these threats as simply the musings of a Chicken Little or Chuckie Finster. Of course, one can find charter opponents, proponents, and agnostics on both sides of the aisle. And there is no way to know if scores of charter foes will prevail in legislative races next year. Given the uncertainty, however, would it not be more sensible for charter school leaders to begin to prepare for the possibility now, rather than play defense with a state legislature that is suddenly replete with elected officials who are not fond of school choice?
That said, I do not believe that most charter school opponents want to revert to the 100-school cap on charters. Closing schools through legislative diktat would be unpopular and unwise. They are, however, eager to impose additional regulations on charters.
Ideas that have circulated through the years include state-imposed mandates that would require charter schools to provide transportation and participate in the federal school lunch program. Some believe that the state should compel charter schools to account for the demographic characteristics of applicants when conducting enrollment lotteries. Districts with a large concentration of charter schools may demand that lawmakers impose market share-based caps on enrollment growth. For charter opponents and skeptics, the holy grail would be the transfer of charter governance to local school boards, an idea mentioned in the News & Observer forum on charter schools in late October.
In fact, I suspect the recent series of charter school articles published by the News & Observer in anticipation of the forum was designed, in part, to make a case for a stronger regulatory regime. For example:
If charters are “richer and whiter,” then compel them to provide transportation, participate in the federal school lunch program, and use weighted enrollment practices.
If it is a problem that charter management companies “can turn a profit running public schools” and “charter school backers” support Republican candidates, put local school boards in charge of charter operations and governance.
If the concentration of charters “changed one school district,” cap the number of students from any one county who may enroll.
These regulations would simply hasten the transformation of charter schools into institutions that resemble district schools so closely that all meaningful distinctions between them, save the name of the school, disappear. Those would be the lucky ones. Many schools may not be fortunate enough to survive the regulatory rout.
The bottom line is that, while the growth of the charter school movement has been impressive, a motivated and well-funded opposition is working to undermine their efforts by pushing for expansive regulatory requirements, finding ways to limit the flow of state and local funds to charters, and using the mainstream media to undermine the credibility of charter school operators and advocates.
Fortunately, North Carolina is filled with passionate charter school leaders, professionals, and parents. But if they hope to preserve their hard-fought gains and continue to grow the movement, charters need to come together to create a strong, unified, and politically active voice that will work on behalf of the movement that many of us have worked so tirelessly to advance. Otherwise, they may find that the independence and regulatory freedom that they enjoyed as a charter school whisked away by the protectors of the establishment system.
Terry Stoops is vice president of Research and director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation.