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Bob Wilson on DPS's charter school challenge

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Here is an early look at Bob Wilson's column in Sunday' Durham News. Tell us what you think below (with your name, so we may publish your comments in the paper) or at editor@nando.com

By Bob Wilson

The prospect of a charter high school in Research Triangle Park  has the Durham School Board in a lather, and that's good. The board and Superintendent Eric Becoats are getting an education in market-driven schools.

In other words, Durham Public Schools must learn to compete. The public schools in this city are losing their monopoly. Durham's existing charter schools already account for almost 9 percent of the city's elementary students, the highest market share in the state, according to a Feb. 1 N&O report published in last Sunday’s Durham News.

Predictably, the school board is fighting the RTP charter school tooth and claw, warning that the school will be yet another draw-down on local education funding.

Moreover, the board has thrown a hoary specter into the mix: resegregation.
That's a curious tack, considering that minorities comprise 73 percent of the student population in Durham's public schools. If that's not resegregation, what is?

Instead of  fussing and whining, the school board and Becoats ought to be asking themselves why charter schools – Durham already has eight – are gaining favor with so many parents. Would a charter high school plant itself in RTP if parents were satisfied with the quality of Durham Public Schools?

There may be more to come. The Republican-dominated General Assembly lifted the 100-charter cap, opening the way to a formidable alternative to North Carolina's public schools.

Still, it's important to remember that charter schools, which are not bound by many of the rules  and regulations afflicting the public schools, receive the same level of state funding as their public counterparts. So in that respect, the Durham school board and Superintendent Becoats can argue that charters are eating too much of the public schools' pie.

Actually, that weak argument is about all the opponents of more charter schools can muster.

The upside of  all this should be obvious to the Durham education establishment. The public schools need competition to improve their quality. Durham's per-pupil spending is among the highest in the state, yet the schools remain mediocre at best.
Worse, more than 60 percent of Durham school children receive free or reduced-price lunches, a strong marker of poverty among the city's black and Hispanic minorities.

This is the raw material that the public schools must work with, and it isn't easy. But it is vital because our public schools are the entry way to civil society, and for that the public schools  should be celebrated.

The RTP high school would do that too for its 425 students, but with an indomitable emphasis on mathematics, science, technology and engineering. The Durham school board wants to reinvent Southern High School as a similar program, and thus considers the RTP school a mortal threat.

That's an overblown fear. Most RTP charter students will come from families on the perimeter of the research campus. And because the charter is a public school in different livery, its founders say they will aggressively recruit minority students to ensure a diverse student body.

That's what they did with Raleigh Charter High School, ranked with the best in the country.

The RTP high school will not lay waste to Durham Public Schools. If the Durham School Board will  take off its ideological blinders, it will embrace competition as a refreshing tonic for the public schools, not the hemlock they fear.



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I dislike thinking of our

I dislike thinking of our schools as a business - public schools are the fulfillment of a moral obligation we have to provide our youth and nation a bright future. Competition might be well and good, but charter schools can't be allowed to play by rules that undermine the public schools. 

Are charter schools allowed to exclude "high-cost special needs" 
students? I'm thinking here about, say, those students that might require special 
assistants, or those students needing free-lunches or free-breakfasts to sustain their concentration throughout the school day, or those coming from families that can't afford the transportation to and from school. Are the rules, or lack thereof, set up so that charter schools can restrict their "customers" to those that take the least costs? 

If charter schools can restrict their "customers" in that way, then they aren't competing on the basis of a better educational approach for the entire student body, rather they would simply be taking 
the "profitable" students that "subsidize" higher cost, higher-needs students. These "free-market" rules put an unfair burden on the public schools that already do their darndest to accommodate all students. 

And it leaves us with an unfulfilled moral obligation.

Will Wilson
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About the blogger

Mark Schultz is the editor of The Chapel Hill News and The Durham News.