Students at Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham
By Lindsay Wagner
Looking past the now notorious charter school annual report that will likely get a new sheen applied to it prior to its submission to the General Assembly next month, I bring to you another contentious discussion that took place this week at the January Charter School Advisory Board meeting in Raleigh. It didn’t get much media attention, but I believe the kind of debate that I describe below is more illustrative of how education policy is shaping up these days in the Tar Heel state.
WILLING TO TAKE A RISK
Following an intense debate on day two of the board meeting, CSAB chairperson Alex Quigley, a long-time charter school proponent who once ran the high-performing Maureen Joy Charter School* in Durham, pleaded with several of his colleagues not to greenlight a charter school application that was riddled with red flags.
In those moments Quigley also articulated what he sees as an evolving divide on this board— a rift between those who want to uphold a high bar when it comes to the quality of a charter school applicant’s pitch versus those who are more willing to take a gamble in the hope that things will simply “work out.”
“I think it’s interesting…that the people on the board who have run [charter] schools successfully, that changed the trajectory of kids’ lives in low-income communities— [they] are saying this [charter application] is not at the level that our kids deserve,” said Quigley, who identifies as one of the people he describes. He took a pause before asking incredulously, “Do you not believe us?”
He repeated the question. “Do you not believe us?” asked Quigley, drawing blank stares from those who sat on the other side of this debate.
Quigley made these remarks at the conclusion of a passionate exchange over whether or not to recommend for approval to the State Board of Education the application for Next Generation Academy, which would be a K-2 public charter school in Greensboro that has plans to grow to accommodate grades K-8.
(Just a quick reminder: charter schools are public schools intended to serve as ‘laboratories of innovation,’ beholden to fewer requirements than local public schools with the hope they’ll develop teaching and learning methods that are scalable to the larger public school population. There used to be a 100-school cap on charter schools in North Carolina but the General Assembly lifted that limit in 2011.)
Next Generation’s was the second application in as many days that created significant division among members of the Charter School Advisory Board, with some pushing hard to hold back on approving schools that were weak on important budget or student enrollment plans or on how to accommodate students with special needs. Other members took the approach of trusting the potential they saw in the schools’ leaders and hoping that they would figure things out in the run up to opening a charter school.
What were the problems with Next Generation’s pitch? An initial review of their application found a lack of clarity in the stated educational plan, something that Quigley hammered on when he interviewed the prospective school’s board chair on Tuesday.
“What I’ve found as a principal (of another school in Guilford County)…it doesn’t matter what [educational] program we have, it has to do with the leadership and it also has to do with the faculty that you’re able to pull in. They have to have a passion and a desire to build relationships with those kids,” responded Dr. Sam Misher, a retired Guilford County schools teacher and principal.
Misher emphasized that the main focus of the school would be to develop proficient readers in a geographic area where students’ reading proficiency is abysmally low. Everything else—math, social studies, history—all of those things would just fall into place once the reading problem was solved, explained the school’s leaders.
That wasn’t a satisfactory response for Quigley, who, along with CSAB member Eric Sanchez, pressed further for clarification about what would actually happen in second grade, for example. They never got clear answers from school leaders.
Based on the tenor of the interview, it seemed impossible that Next Generation would garner a thumbs up from the Charter Schools Advisory Board, which comprises eleven voting members that are a mix of frontline charter school leaders along with some who serve on charter schools’ boards but may have less to do with the day-to-day operations of the schools. All voting members are political appointees.
But CSAB board member Alan Hawkes kicked off the debate on the school’s fate with a different tack.
“Guilford County has 42 failing schools,” said Hawkes. “I’m impressed with this board, I don’t know the particulars the way the rest of you do, but I think they should be given opportunities to start up a public charter school in this part of Guilford County. It can only benefit these children in this zip code.”
Hawkes, a founder of two Guilford County charter schools that are managed by the for-profit EMO National Heritage Academies, is known for having chastised his colleagues in past email correspondence for their recommendation of just 11 charter schools out of 71 that applied to open in 2014. His email followed a conversation with Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) about the low number of charter school approvals.
CSAB member Steven Walker, a staff attorney for Lt. Governor Dan Forest, echoed Hawkes’ sentiments and said, “can it get any worse?” as a justification for the school’s opening.
“I’m willing, given the desperate need in that area, to take that risk that they’re going to find the right people and give the right training to ensure that the school is successful,” said board member Joe Maimone, who runs the Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, while admitting that Next Generation Academy’s application was not as strong as he would have liked.
CSAB chairman Quigley grew frustrated.
“I don’t believe that just ‘giving people a chance’…that’s not the bar. That cannot be the bar. I agree that there’s a need…but it’s also gotta be high quality,” countered Quigley.
CSAB member Cheryl Turner, who runs Sugar Creek Charter School in Charlotte, agreed.
“Because the need is so great, these are not the kids that we ought to say ‘well, they need help so we’ll put something out there and hope it works,’” said Turner.
Thanks to the absence of board member Tammi Sutton, the board ended up with a split vote on Next Generation – it was 5-5 on a motion to not recommend the school for opening. Confusion ensued on what that meant at the time for the fate of the school, but it appears that it will ultimately be up to the State Board of Education to decide next month as to whether or not the school should be granted a charter to open in 2017.
As I mentioned earlier, a similar debate took place the day prior regarding Bonnie Cone Classical Academy which aims to eventually serve grades K-8 in Charlotte. That school got the green light with a 6-3 vote (1 recusal), even though discussions continued throughout the board meeting as to whether or not that was a smart move, given the application’s weak points on how to accommodate students with special needs and the degree to which it will be able to recruit as many students as school leaders say they think is possible.
I give a considerable amount of ink to these discussions because I think they shed a good deal of light on how these important decisions are being made that affect our state’s children—and that they fall into a larger pattern of decision-making for this board.
When charter schools fail, I believe it’s telling to take a look back at whether or not there were warning signs from the beginning, and the degree to which those empowered with deciding who gets the incredible responsibility of educating students in a charter setting gave those warning signs appropriate and thorough consideration.
The Charter School Advisory Board put forward the following votes to the State Board of Education this week:
Bonnie Cone Classical Academy (Charlotte) – Recommend for opening, 6-3 (1 recusal)
Discovery Charter School (Durham) – Recommend for opening, unanimous vote
Next Generation Academy (Greensboro) – Split vote, 5-5
Paul L Dunbar Charter School (Rowan County) – Not recommend, unanimous
Ridgeview Charter School (Gaston County) – Recommend for opening, 7-2
Related news stories
NC official will add charter school awards to ‘negative’ report – News & Observer
Atkinson: “We have used the facts” about charter schools – The Progressive Pulse
*Fletcher Foundation provides financial support to the Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham.