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Guest column: The thing about charter schools

By Mary Kaufmann

Salisbury High School

In the past decade, there has been a sharp increase in the number of charter schools established in North Carolina. As of January 2017, North Carolina was home to 171 brick-and-mortar charter schools and two virtual charter schools, which combined serve nearly 92,000 students.

The number of students attending charter schools has almost doubled in the past five years and will continue to increase as nearly a dozen charter schools have been approved to open in the next year.

Charter schools are tuition-free, taxpayer-funded institutions that have increased flexibility regarding education regulations set by the state. For example, charter schools do not have to adhere to specific starting or ending dates and can make their own schedules.

Charter schools also have the liberty to implement creative programs and classes, as they do not have to follow a state-regulated curriculum. Only 50 percent of charter school teachers must be certified, which permits charter schools to bring in outside professionals or experts as prospective educators.

Charter schools provide students the chance to attend a school outside their usual school district — a potential “outlet” for students who may seek a certain program, opportunity or environment that is not found in their current school district.

Although charter schools do provide potential innovative alternatives to traditional institutions, they also raise many concerns. In North Carolina, there is no restriction of for-profit or out-of-state management of charter schools. Additionally, charter schools are not required to release their annual expenditures to the public — not even how they are spending public funds.

Also, charter schools are not required to provide federal food programs or transportation services to their students.

Therefore, many charter schools in North Carolina that are not easily accessible have unintentionally selected a primarily homogeneous middle- and upper-class student population because most low-income students are dependent on buses to travel to and from school and on the availability of free or reduced-price lunch options.

In a 2015 study of North Carolina charter schools conducted by Duke University, researchers found that charter schools are contributing to increased racial segregation in education. Different charter schools cater to different racial groups “in the sense that some are serving primarily minority students and others are serving primarily white students.”

Furthermore, the researchers concluded that many charter schools report higher test scores than traditional schools simply because of “trends in the types of students they are attracting rather than the charters’ programs or their program improvements.”

Four years ago, I made the decision to attend my local public high school instead of a nearby charter school. In addition to the abundance of academic and extracurricular opportunities my school provides, my experience at Salisbury High School has taught me to value the differences among people. Because I attend a school located in the center of my own city — as opposed to one located in a different city — I have gained a better sense of community.

A school has a role beyond the education of children; it serves as a unifying force in a city by reinforcing the relationships and bonds among all the different members of a community. If I had to choose where I would attend high school again today, I would make the same decision without hesitation.

Mary Kaufmann is a student at Salisbury High School. This is the text of a speech the student delivered as a Junior Rotarian to the Salisbury Rotary Club.

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