Whether virtual charter schools would be a positive innovation for North Carolina schoolchildren remains unknown. Finding out will depend on the courts, which may intervene to let the State Board of Education block online programs — a ruling is expected Friday.
If the programs do get off the ground, gauging the merits of virtual charter schools, balanced against the loss of funds to traditional schools, will take more time. Views on similar existing programs in other states vary depending on whom you ask — those tied to the educational establishment are very negative, but others have positive things to say.
As Lincoln County school officials acted recently to support the State Board of Education’s appeal, they followed the lead of most other school districts, a knee-jerk reaction that is shortsighted at best, and disingenuous at worst.
Education advocates express concern that these new schools lacking brick and mortar won’t be held to the standards of public schools. But some virtual charter schools elsewhere seem to be doing OK and can even point to data showing high achievement and graduation rates. The criticisms being leveled against them on academic grounds aren’t too different from the tired complaints we’ve come to expect when devotees of public schools whine about all charter programs. In reality, all school types — public, charter, virtual charter or private — boast both success and failure stories.
The more sincere criticism, that virtual charter schools would threaten funding for local public schools, also duplicates educators’ objections to increasing the numbers of traditional charter schools. Could charter schools, especially online, threaten public education, at least in theory? Sure. If public schools struggle while charter schools succeed in the same communities, with the same pool of students and teaching talent, it could mean there’s something wrong with the local public school system. That’s why public schools had better stop talking about how great they are and start working to make it so. Challenging our schools to be better by offering competitive alternatives doesn’t have to pose a threat if they will simply rise to the task.
While we’re on the topic, let’s stop the empty praise we constantly hear being showered on the Lincoln County Schools and talk about some real numerical measures. The nonprofit group GreatSchools.org assigns numerical measures to schools based on state end-of-grade and end-of-course testing. On a 10-point scale, Lincoln County schools average a 6.4. That’s not good; it’s mediocre. Some individual cases are worse, including Lincolnton High, Norris Childers Elementary, G.E. Massey Elementary, Kiser Intermediate and North Brook Elementary, which are only level 4 schools. Some individual test measures, such as an unusually low score for Lincolnton High students on end-of-course tests in the physical sciences, are especially appalling. These numbers matter; they’ll be noticed when the high-tech employers we need decide whether we have the right workforce to bring them here.
Consider a different standardized measure by taking a look at our four high schools. The 2011 national average for composite SAT scores was 1011, with a state average of 1001. Congratulations to North Lincoln, which was slightly above the national average at 1024. East Lincoln students scored right at the state average. Both of the schools can bask in the glory of being middle-of-the-road instead of outright lousy. But Lincolnton’s score of 964 and West Lincoln’s of 956 were well below average.
These are not good enough schools for our students. We can do better. And if school officials only want to persist in telling us how excellent our county’s schools are, why shouldn’t parents jerk their kids out of the public system and enroll them in charter programs?
Discussing this issue isn’t a criticism of our local students or teachers. Our public schools aren’t defeated; they can do better if we hold them to higher expectations. But doing so is going to take fresh thinking and original approaches. It will also mean purging the agents of nepotism and protectors of the status quo from the school board and our central offices.
Protecting a flawed system by trying to stifle competition from charter schools isn’t the answer. Instead, educators and other community leaders must work together with a focused effort to make superior schools a reality.