The myth of school choice in North Carolina

*this article appeared in the Washington Post

It’s a common refrain among charter school and voucher advocates:  “We need to provide families with choice.” And on its face, it sounds pretty good–we all expect choice when we go to the store for peanut butter, don’t we?  But what happens when all my peanut butter options are equally unpalatable, except for the ones that are priced beyond my means? Does the fact that I have a choice really make much of a difference at that point?

Since the cap on charter schools was lifted by North Carolina’s state legislature in 2012, the number of charter schools in the state has nearly doubled.  This year we will have 185 charter schools in operation, serving more than 100,000 students across the state (overseen by a staff of 8 people).  That’s a lot of peanut butter, with very little quality control.

While charter schools in some states have been used successfully to improve academic performance for low income students, in North Carolina they’ve been used predominantly as a vehicle for affluent white folks to opt out of traditional public schools.  Trends of racial and economic segregation that were already worrisome in public schools before the cap was lifted have deepened in our charter schools. Now more than two thirds of our charter schools are either 80%+ white or 80%+ students of color.  Charter schools are not required to provide transportation or free/reduced-price meals, effectively preventing families that need help in those areas from having access to the best schools.

Academic achievement in our hypersegregated charter schools has played out along socioeconomic lines, just as it generally does in traditional public schools.  Charter schools that serve primarily low-income families have struggled, with percentages of charter schools rating D or F according to NC’s school report card system exceeding those of their traditional public school counterparts.  On the other end of the spectrum, charter schools rated A or B are more common than traditional public schools that earn those grades. They’re also populated mostly by wealthy white students.

A 2014 study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill found that students of color in segregated schools tended to make smaller gains in reading than students of color in more integrated schools.  Research also shows that white students don’t experience a decline in those integrated settings. Segregated schools are more likely to have inexperienced teachers, higher teacher turnover and student mobility, and lower quality facilities.  Students at more integrated schools see improved academic outcomes, increased educational attainment, and increased likelihood of living and working in diverse settings.  

Despite the clear benefits, it’s very rare in North Carolina for charter schools to be intentional about seeking out an integrated population of students.  In fact, until 2015, state law didn’t allow charters to use socioeconomic status in their admission lotteries. Even now that they have permission to do so, only three charter schools in the state actively use SES for their lottery: Charlotte Lab School, Community School of Davidson, and Central Park School in Durham.

I don’t believe that charter schools are inherently bad, and I recognize the fact that there are charter schools doing good work in North Carolina–even some that serve low income students and do so well.  However, on a systems level, the effectiveness of our charter schools depends on the policies that govern them. If our state legislators are really serious about providing families with good choices, they must enact policies that move us in the direction of racial and economic integration.  Until that happens, let’s stop pretending that ‘choice’ benefits all students equally.