What is happening in Durham County, N.C.,  is exactly what charter school critics have long feared: the destabilization of the traditional district system.

Ned Barnett, the editorial page editor of the News & Observer wrote in this piece that the spread of charter schools in the county since the state legislature lifted the cap on new charters in 2011 is out of control, serving to “undermine” the traditional system that educates most of the region’s children — without the kind of accountability that school reformers say they love.

When the charter movement began years ago, supporters said these schools would serve as “laboratories” for best practices from which traditional schools could learn. In fact, there is pretty much nothing that successful charter schools do that traditional schools haven’t done, except, perhaps, routinely counsel out students. Barnett said that “the experiment is spinning out of control.” 

By Ned Barnett

Charter schools were supposed to be laboratories for change in public schools, but in Durham County the experiment is spinning out of control.

The county is being flooded with charters to an extent that has undermined the district school system, a system that charters are supposed to improve by providing competition and testing new approaches to instruction.

Durham County is home to 10 charter schools, with an 11th opening in August. Six more Durham-based charters have applications pending with the state to open in 2015. In addition, the Durham Public Schools must pay for more than 300 students who attend 19 other charters outside Durham County.

Charters have become so pervasive that 12.5 percent of the county’s school-age children attend charters, compared with 3.3 percent statewide.

The growing number of charter schools is undoing the hard-won accomplishment of 1992 when the county overcame a history of racial tensions to combine the city school system and the county school system into the Durham Public Schools. The charters’ effect on the district schools has been a loss of middle-class children of both races and a concentration of poor and minority students in the district schools.

The change alarms Heidi Carter, a Durham Board of Education member since 2004 and board chair for the last three years. She and her husband have lived in Durham for more than 30 years and have four children who attended Durham public schools.

“As a community, we have to ask ourselves: Are we OK with that? Are we OK with separate but equal? Because that’s the best we can hope for if this trend continues,” she said.

What is driving the trend is the General Assembly’s 2011 decision to lift a cap on charter schools that had limited them to 100. The state has 127 charter schools in operation this year, with 26 more opening next fall and 62 being considered for 2015.

The growth in charters is uneven. They are located in only 56 of the state’s 100 counties and tend to be in urban areas where the local per-pupil payments are higher. Durham County provides $3,086 per student. Durham Public Schools has the fourth-highest per-pupil funding and the third-highest number of charters. When a child enrolls in a charter school, that money goes with him or her.

Durham Public Schools estimates that funding diverted to charter schools to support 4,774 charter school students takes $14.9 million annually away from district schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded K-12 schools that operate under their own mission or “charter.” They are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. Charters are attended by choice rather than assignment and don’t have to provide transportation or free and reduced price lunches, an absence of services that makes it less likely that low-income children can or will attend.

In some other states, local school districts have a say in whether a charter should be approved within the district. But the bill lifting North Carolina’s charter cap also removed a requirement that the district submit an impact statement when a charter school applied to open within the district. The lack of district-level influence exposes vulnerable districts with high per-pupil payments to a rush of charters.

Durham shows how a concentration of charters can destabilize a school system, and it won’t be the only case. Charters are proliferating in Mecklenburg County, with similar effects of increasing separation by race and income. Urban districts in which middle-class parents worry about sending their children to schools with a high proportion of low-income students could face the same flight and balkanization. They will have charter schools with involved parents and students predominantly of one race and traditional district schools full of students whose parents can’t or won’t sort through charter options or who need transportation and free or reduced lunches.

The irony of Durham’s facing a big rise in charter options is that the system already offers an array of schools with a special curriculum. There are language-immersion schools and Montessori schools. Every middle school has a magnet theme, a special instructional focus or a calendar option.

Eddie Goodall, a former state senator and now executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, said parents are voting for charters with their feet. If it forces district schools to examine why, that’s a good thing, he said. “It is not unusual for school boards to be asking: ‘What can we do to keep our students?’ We want them to ask that question,” he said.

Carter thinks she already knows the answer. People are seeking educational enclaves, private schools with public funding. That preference is accelerating the re-segregation of the public school system and draining the funding that district schools need to meet the challenge of teaching children from low-income and immigrant families.

“Everyone should be concerned about that,” she said. “The minority population is becoming the majority. If we don’t figure out how to educate those children well, we’re all going to be in trouble.”