Charter schools are a booming business, and North Carolina has opened the floodgates
ILLUSTRATION BY ENRICO VARRASSO
Kindergarten orientation day at Queen’s Grant Community School is full of the usual squirming and fussing. A dad swings his fidgeting toddler over a shoulder and sidles out of the gym. A pixie-haired girl, no more than three or four years old, stomps up the bleachers so loudly that heads turn. In the back row, a baby wails.
In the center of the gym, wearing a blue church-lady dress, Principal Christy Morrin is unfazed. There is carpooling to discuss. Traffic patterns. Pickup times. Essential information for a school with 750 students and no buses. “It’s gonna be bad,” Morrin tells the bleachers full of bleary-eyed parents. But she promises it will get better.
It’s an ordinary back-to-school scene, with a few exceptions: along with the lack of buses, there is no cafeteria at this publicly funded, privately run K-8 charter school. Students line up to buy lunch and then eat it in their classrooms. Every morning, they also attend assemblies on whatever “virtue” is part of the lesson plan that month—subjects such as respect, gratitude, self-control. That’s part of Queen’s Grant’s “moral focus” curriculum. And if parents are upset with the school’s leadership, their complaints don’t go to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. They go to the school’s owner, National Heritage Academies, a for-profit company in Michigan.
Schools like Queen’s Grant are at the heart of a national debate over the growth of charter schools—a debate that is just arriving in North Carolina thanks to the General Assembly’s decision last year to lift the cap on the number of charters in the state. As public schools slash budgets and lay off teachers, critics worry about private companies profiting from taxpayer-funded charters. Supporters argue that private competition is key to improving public education. As Robert Landry, chairman of the North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said in July: “We are [at] the beginning of a whole new way of looking at education in North Carolina.”
When the modern charter movement gained steam in the mid-1990s, it was touted as an effort to improve education through competition, allowing schools to experiment with innovative teaching methods without being constrained by district rules. In exchange for this freedom, charters were to be held strictly accountable for their results. They are publicly funded and their students must take state standardized tests, but they have flexibility in hiring and designing curriculum.
Today charters benefit from a large, influential lobbying effort, including groups such as Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. In the last few years, advocates have pushed Republican-led state legislatures to remove caps on charter schools and provide incentives for more to open. The Obama administration devoted millions of dollars to the schools with its Race to the Top initiative, which also encouraged states to lift their charter caps. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have insisted the new schools will help solve some of public education’s most intractable problems.
But the schools’ bipartisan popularity has prompted a backlash. An increasing number of critics accuse charters of catering to wealthier, white children, excluding needier kids, and profiting off the public dime. In states without tight caps on the number of charter schools, the industry has grown into a multimillion-dollar business with questionable academic success. And since school tax dollars follow students, every new charter diverts funds from traditional public schools.
In Mecklenburg County, each of the eleven charter schools is vastly different from the next. Most are run by local groups and located in suburbs or in neighborhoods south of uptown. Queen’s Grant is the only one managed by a for-profit company. Some aim to help at-risk kids, while others concentrate on gifted children.
Parents upset by academic struggles and growing class sizes in CMS see charters as a free alternative to private schools. Nearly 8,300 students from Mecklenburg County enrolled in charters last year—more than any other county in the state (Wake is a distant second with 5,800 charter students). Five new Mecklenburg charters have been recommended for approval by the state Board of Education for next year, and one existing private school converted to a charter in August. If all the new charters are approved, the county’s total will reach seventeen schools. Two more would be located in Cabarrus and Iredell counties and could serve CMS students. (In September, after this story went to press, all seven of the new charters that could serve CMS students next year were approved.)
North Carolina has so far limited schools run by for-profit companies to a tiny slice of the charter pie. But now that the cap has been lifted, the state Board of Education could face political pressure to reverse that trend. A new council designed to advise the board is stacked with charter advocates, and they have already voted to approve six new schools managed by for-profit companies. Some observers fear quality will be sacrificed in the push to approve new schools. “For me, there aren’t good charters,” says Carol Sawyer of Mecklenburg ACTS, a local citizens group that advocates improving public schools. “It’s taking unproven and sometimes failed approaches and applying them to our most vulnerable children—for profit.”
On a projection screen in the Queen’s Grant gym, Principal Morrin displays a color-coded disciplinary chart that teachers use to keep a daily log of how often a child misbehaves. If the troublemaking passes the “mild to moderate” green stage, a school dean explains, it can lead to suspension. The dress code is also strict: girls must wear tights under their skirts. No hats or headscarves allowed.
After state legislators lifted the 100–school cap on charters, they also created the North Carolina Public Charter Schools Advisory Council to help oversee the schools and make recommendations to the Board of Education. Fifteen panelists were appointed by Governor Bev Perdue, Republican legislators, and State Superintendent June Atkinson. Eleven of the council members are either charter advocates or have helped run charter schools. One council member is president of the board of a National Heritage school in Greensboro.
Mint Hill Mayor Ted Biggers Jr., who is president of the school’s board, says the town’s residents like these behavioral rules and what National Heritage calls its “moral focus” curriculum. “We thought it was very important—as well as the dress code and the discipline policy,” he says.
Queen’s Grant is now the second largest charter school in Mecklenburg and is an institution the town worked hard to create. Its history illustrates the pattern followed by charter schools in suburban communities throughout the country.
In 1999, a group of parents were upset that their kids were getting shuffled around within CMS schools, Biggers says. At the time, the school district was still busing children to comply with court-ordered desegregation. But while a legal battle raged over the busing policy, CMS school boundaries were in flux. Parents complained that when their child adjusted to a teacher and community, they would be assigned to a new school.
“There were very few choices that parents had other than to home school or send their child to private school across town,” Biggers says. (Clear Creek, Bain, Crown Point, and Lebanon elementary schools, as well as Northeast and Mint Hill middle schools now serve the area.)
So Biggers, a U.S. Airways pilot and father of three who had just been elected mayor, teamed up with the parents to search for a charter school operator. They found National Heritage Academies, which agreed to acquire land and build a K-8 school on Matthews-Mint Hill Road. (Queen’s Grant also has a high school next door, but it is run by a separate principal and not managed by National Heritage Academies.) Morrin moved from Michigan, where she was working at another National Heritage school, to become principal in Mint Hill.
National Heritage got into the charter business early, taking advantage of a 1994 Michigan law that allowed tax dollars to fund schools run by for-profit companies. In the late 1990s, the company’s recruiting slogan was “A private school education for the masses.” Wealthy entrepreneur J.C. Huizenga—cousin of Wayne Huizenga, who founded Waste Management and Blockbuster Video—had long donated to religious schools and decided to give charters a shot. He grew up attending Christian schools, and the “moral focus” curriculum became a hallmark of National Heritage Academies. In the early years, National Heritage policy was to teach both creationism and Darwinism as theories, according to the Wall Street Journal. In 1998, the ACLU of Michigan sued the company in federal court for promoting religion. Plaintiffs alleged that mothers held weekly prayer meetings at one Grand Rapids school, and a teacher read from the Bible in class. The suit was dismissed; Principal Morrin says Queen’s Grant does not teach religion.
Today National Heritage is one of the largest charter school operators in the country, running seventy-one schools in nine states, including five schools in North Carolina. J.C. Huizenga rewards politicians that help spur this growth. He’s been a major campaign donor to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney; this year he donated $30,800 to the Republican National Committee.
Charters receive money on a per-pupil basis—more students, the more funding a school receives. For Queen’s Grant, National Heritage’s central office in Michigan collects all the state, federal, and local tax funds allocated to the school and uses them to pay expenses such as teacher salaries, curriculum, and maintenance of the school building. National Heritage handles the school’s accounting, hires the principal, and dictates the general curriculum. It saves money by not building a cafeteria or providing bus service. Whatever revenue it doesn’t spend operating schools, the company keeps as compensation.