Traditional public schools have a love-hate relationship with public charter schools in North Carolina.

Public school districts often publicly oppose new charter schools, and their lobbyists want to limit their growth. But at the same time, these traditional school district love all of the benefits that charter schools have under the law — and want them for themselves.

Multiple school districts and education lobbying groups are asking the General Assembly to grant charter flexibility to traditional public schools. Numerous local bills have been filed on behalf of individual school districts calendar flexibility in particular. Most of those efforts haven’t gone very far.

Here’s an explanation of the flexibility that charter schools have, and why traditional public schools want them.

What flexibility do charter schools have?

The North Carolina public school system is arguably the most heavily regulated entity in the state. State law governs everything from when school districts must begin classes, to how much they can pay teachers, to how many students can be in each class.

Charter schools do not need to abide by many of these rules.

  • Traditional public schools must follow the state-approved curriculum. Charter schools can choose alternate curriculums.
  • Traditional public schools must provide bus service to students. Charter schools don’t.
  • Traditional public schools must follow state salary schedules for their teachers and staff. Charter schools can pay teachers how they’d like — paying more for performance, or negotiating for top talent.
  • Traditional public schools must start classes on the Monday closest to August 26. Charter schools can start earlier or later.
  • Traditional schools must employ only licensed teachers. Charter schools can have up to 50% of their teachers unlicensed, often elective teachers who are experts in the field.
  • Traditional public schools are given money in multiple heavily restricted funds. Charter schools are given money as a lump sum and can spend it as they see fit.

This chart from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools sums it up succinctly.

Why do charter schools have flexibility?

Charter schools are intended to be laboratories of innovation. They’re under stricter scrutiny from the state, and at risk of being shut down in a hurry if they don’t succeed. Parents also can pull their students out of charter schools at will.

Charter schools are also intended to help students who aren’t well-served by the traditional public school. The flexibility lets charter schools differentiate themselves and let parents decide what works best for their families.

Will traditional public schools ever get charter flexibility?

It could happen, but it’s unlikely.

Charter schools currently serve roughly 6.5% of students in North Carolina. It’s a small enough population where the state can give adequate oversight to the specialized programs. Giving all schools charter-like flexibility would be an oversight nightmare.

However, there are some limited experiments in giving charter flexibility to traditional public school districts. The “Renewal School System” program underway in Rowan-Salisbury Schools essentially gives the entire district the same freedom as charter schools.

The 2018-19 school year is the first in the renewal program. Lawmakers hope to expand it if it works.

Cover image of Charter Day School in Leland by Brad Barth via Flickr (Creative Commons).

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