Charter School Questions

Oak Hill Charter School board members have much to consider

LENOIR, N.C.  — Members of the Oak Hill community in Caldwell County have elected a Board of Directors to establish the Oak Hill Charter School. Planned as a K-8 school, they plan to open for the 2022-2023 school year, according to the school’s Facebook page.

The move to establish the charter school follows a decision in May by the Caldwell County Board of Education to close Oak Hill Elementary School due to a shortage in the system’s Fund Balance (savings account). The decision is effective this school year. The charter school board is looking at using the old school for their venture.

So, as the folks in Oak Hill begin the task of chartering a public school, it is good to consider the many questions that people have about charter schools.

The North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools and the North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools provide a good tool for such an exercise — the questionnaire they have sent out to candidates for state office. As groups aggressively advocating for charter schools, the questions are not only relevant for those seeking office, they are essential for those beginning this process in Oak Hill — and for those who may wish to send their children there.

Below are the questions. I have worked in education as a teacher, administrator and school board member. I have covered education in North Carolina as a reporter for nearly 30 years.

After that amount of time, one would expect that I might have an opinion on charter schools. I do. I support them. So, I’m encouraging you to consider the questions — and the answers that I have arrived at after three decades considering these questions in one form or another. I am not hindered by political philosophy on the question of charter schools. The only thing that matters to me is if they empower teachers to unlock the child’s own creativity, curiosity, and desire to be a lifelong learner.

I am not hindered by political philosophy on the question of charter schools. The only thing that matters to me is if they empower teachers to unlock the child’s own creativity, curiosity, and desire to be a lifelong learner.

It is my belief that charter schools can do that — or better — than traditional public schools. My answers explain why.

Q. Do you view charter schools as public schools?
A. Yes. They are supported by tax dollars. Additionally, the definition of public should be expanded to include locally elected board members for a single school (as has happened in Oak Hill). The model of local people supervising their local schools is as old as the Republic — and more importantly, highly effective. 

Q. Are North Carolina charter schools currently held to satisfactory levels of financial accountability and transparency?

A. Yes.The Charter Schools Advisory Board of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is vested with powerful oversight of the state’s charter schools.

Q. Do charter schools “drain” funding from school districts?

A. No. The state’s formula for funding is based on student enrollment. Hence, the money follows the student, as it should — and will — when the Oak Hill Elementary School students are transferred to other schools in the county. The money is earmarked for the student, not the school. So, whether they end up at another county school or the new Oak Hill Charter School, the money should follow the student.

Q. Should charter schools receive funding to pay for their buildings?

A. Yes. Since a charter school is a public school, it should be treated as such. However, I think it is realistic to revisit North Carolina’s funding formula, which is summarized here. The first option is to have the state pay for all costs associated with educating our children, including those currently passed on to county taxpayers. Lacking that, some unconventional ideas should be put on the table. For instance, I served on the North Carolina School Board Taxing Authority Committee in 1999-2000. The concept being considered was asking the North Carolina General Assembly to allow local Boards of Education to have their own taxing authority so that they were not dependent upon county commissions for funding — such as for buildings. At that time, in neighboring Burke County and elsewhere, school boards were fighting with county commissioners because of inadequate funding. So, perhaps it is time to revisit that idea. The county school board could impose a county-wide tax. And, as with the state funding formula, monies collected would follow students, including those in charter schools.

Q. Would you support reinstating the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate statewide?

A. No. Society is changing rapidly. We have food deserts and healthcare deserts in many rural areas and impoverished inner cities of North Carolina. The factors which cause this — lost jobs, low incomes and inadequate social safety nets — also create education deserts. Some communities, such as Oak Hill, are caught in a geographic conundrum not of their making. But they can fix it as they are doing. That would not be possible if the cap was reinstated.

Q, Would you favor North Carolina moving to a weighted student funding model? In this model, the state would fund students based on their needs.

A. Yes. According to the Public School Forum of North Carolina, “Year after year, our poorest counties fall further behind our wealthier ones in terms of resources available to their local schools,” said Dr. Michael D. Priddy, Acting President & Executive Director, Public School Forum of North Carolina. “These funding disparities have a real impact on educational opportunity for students, particularly in terms of the ability of lower wealth counties to fund local supplemental pay to attract and retain the teachers they need to serve students.” There is no reason to believe that charter schools are exempt from this problem.

Q. Should charter schools have flexibility over the school calendar?

A. Yes! This is the epitome of local control.

Q. Should charter schools have flexibility over curricula?

A. Yes. Flexibility is a gentle word. This is not a demand for unaccountable autonomy. A fundamental reason people start a charter school is to be able to return to teaching the basics, as the state has promised — but repeatedly failed — to do.

Q. Should charter schools have flexibility over teacher evaluations?

A. Yes. Teachers are hired by the principal and the school board. Those who hire people are those who should evaluate them (though I would have a teacher as part of the evaluation process for the purposes of viewpoint and advocacy). In a well-run organization, professionals are expected to help set their own standards, live and work by them, and be judged on the outcomes of the shared expectations — in this case, of the principal and teacher. Only the school principal could possibly know if the teacher is succeeding at meeting or exceeding expectations (or failing to). This issue is also rooted in our testing madness, which simply can’t be unpacked at the moment.

Q. Should charter schools have flexibility with regard to hiring/teacher licensing?

A. Yes. As with the previous question, the local principal and board are best equipped to select the people that will be teaching their community’s children. Every community — including Oak Hill — is full of people with practical and professional experience that can benefit the students. I am an example. I became a teacher through the lateral entry program. Though I don’t have a degree in education, my other degrees — and extensive experience as a writer — served me well as I taught English and writing to high school freshmen and sophomores. All evaluations of my work by an assistant principal (four a year) were excellent. Why? Well, I tried hard and I wanted to prove I deserved the job, but ultimately because I had practical experience as an editor and reporter mentoring younger writers. That transferred beautifully to the classroom. I know, because students I had 20 years ago still tell me so.

Q. Should charter schools have flexibility over day-to-day programming/operations?

A. Yes. Again, local control. A good example of this is field trips. Because of the focus on testing, many public schools have simply stopped or severely limited one of the most effective learning exercises — the field trip. I took students to Washington, D.C. in defiance of our school board and principal. My students and their parents considered the trip important enough to finance it ourselves and schedule it so that we wouldn’t miss one minute of class time. Weeks later, well after our return, I received one of the most inspiring scrapbooks a student ever gave me. A teacher knows. Those students learned more about their nation by visiting our capitol over just one weekend than they had learned in the previous nine years in school.

Q. Should charter schools have flexibility over student grading?

A. Yes! One person should determine the grade — the teacher.

In conclusion, charter schools model the ABCs of education: accountability, teaching the basics and local control where it matters the most — the classroom.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2020. Teacher and student photo by Aw Creative on Unsplash. Home page photo by Allie on Unsplash