Next step for charter schools

  • Posted: Monday, May 6, 2013 9:16 p.m.

The strongest argument for charter schools when the concept gained widespread recognition in the 1990s was their ability to experiment with education techniques and curriculum. The schools could innovate free of many state and local regulations. The best practices developed from these living laboratories could be adopted by public schools, thereby improving education for everyone, advocates said.

Two decades later, North Carolina may finally take that argument from theory into practice. While many details remain to be worked out, this next step should win the support of education advocates on both sides of the political aisle.

Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Republican from Forsyth County, has introduced legislation that would let local school boards create charter schools and form more flexible arrangements with district-run schools, according to The News & Observer. The bill grew in part from a white paper written by Don Martin, superintendent of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth school system and former superintendent in Rowan-Salisbury. He also is president of the state’s Superintendents’ Association. Lambeth is the former chairman of Martin’s school board.

Martin believes the proposed legislation offers a more practical approach for both charters and conventional schools, as he explained in a recent email to the Post. It would prevent the creation of two competing systems, he said.

“This idea actually came to me while sitting in a State Board meeting when last year’s fast track charter approvals were being discussed,” Martin wrote. “It occurred to me, that if one really cared about all children doing well in schools funded with public money, it shouldn’t matter what public school delivered their education. So instead of ‘competition’ being some sort of tool to ‘make traditional public schools get better,’ it should be accountability that makes us get better. In that sense, if resources are distributed fairly, then charters and traditional public schools could collaborate and all become more accountable.”

Some describe Lambeth’s legislation as a bridge between charter schools and local school systems. Ideally, it would also provide a bridge between the state’s public education system and reformers who portray public schools as failures. Public education leaders like Martin have just as much desire to shake things up and try new approaches as anyone. Right now state law gives them little flexibility to do so.

Other pending legislation goes in the opposite direction, taking charter schools out of the Department of Public Instruction and putting them under an independent board, while further relaxing requirements for teacher certification and background checks. That bill is a reckless step backwards.

Lambeth’s approach adds flexibility where it can do the most good — to public school systems that want the freedom to innovate. This is a well-reasoned step forward, one which true education advocates will embrace.

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