November 30, 2012
By Chris Hill
Recently, Dr. Rodney Shotwell, Superintendent of Rockingham County Schools, proposed to the Rockingham County Board of Education that the system open its own charter schools. At the board meeting, Shotwell mentioned he is working with other superintendents to develop a way their local boards can create charter schools within traditional public schools.
These superintendents are getting to the heart of how charter schools were intended to operate. When Dr. Ray Budde first developed the idea of charter schools in the 1970s, he imagined that teachers would apply for charters from their local school boards, and they would create schools with innovative curricula and share the successful techniques throughout their school districts. Albert Shanker, late president of the American Federation for Teachers (AFT), expanded on the charter concept in 1988 when he proposed allowing teachers to create schools within already existing public schools to educate the most at-risk students.
Charter schools do not share their innovations in North Carolina. Instead, charters are seen as competition for traditional public schools. It is silly to pit two groups of public schools against each other in a battle for scarce resources. When charters are business rivals to traditional public schools, then there is no incentive to share the innovation that charters can explore because they have fewer regulations. And the for-profit corporations that make money by managing charter schools definitely have no incentive to share successful ideas with traditional public schools.
While some charters start as grassroots movements of parents and communities, unfortunately, more and more charters are created under the auspices of for-profit charter management organizations (also known as education management organizations). Some of them create the nonprofit board required for starting a charter school in North Carolina, while others prey on those with good intentions.
What makes the idea that Shotwell and his colleagues are putting forth so refreshing is that any novel techniques created in the charter schools could immediately be used in the other schools in the districts. These superintendents will have to contend with the charter law that requires each charter school be run by a nonprofit organization, but if the General Assembly is serious about making public schools stronger it will consider ways to make local school boards responsible for the oversight of charters they create in their communities.
We do not know what will arise from the idea proposed by Shotwell and the other superintendents, but it could help to alleviate the free market language and efforts to privatize our public schools. When schools are not in competition and can collaborate, students will benefit. That is an idea that we can all accept.