It’s been 25 years since the N.C. General Assembly passed the Charter Schools Act of 1996, opening the doors for alternative schools. The goal was to spark some educational innovation at schools that don’t have to follow many traditional public school policies including curriculum, class size and teacher licensing. Eighteen of the 34 schools that opened in 1997 remain in operation today. In 2011, lawmakers removed the cap of 100 schools and now 206 operate across the state with enrollment of more than 126,000 students. A waiting list tops 75,000 students. Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association for Public Charter Schools, discussed the schools’ status in this interview, which was edited for brevity and clarity. The Greensboro College graduate taught high school English for 18 years and co-founded a charter school in Asheboro in 2013. She has a master’s degree in education leadership from High Point University.
► Why did the number of charter schools double since the cap was lifted?
One size doesn’t fit all. In the past, students were relegated to the schools that were in their ZIP codes. That meant that parents who didn’t have the means to pay for a private education were essentially just stuck with whatever schools their student was assigned to. Charter schools all have their own special and unique missions. We have a variety of different types of schools. We have classical academies, Socratic academies, schools that are project-based-learning focused, arts focused, too many to name.
► Which schools have a distinct focus that stand out in your mind?
There’s an arts-based school in Raleigh called Long Leaf School of the Arts. That’s really a thriving school. An example of a project-based-learning school is Uwharrie Charter Academy, a school I co-founded in Randolph County. The premise is essentially it’s a STEM [science, technology, engineering, math]-focused school. Instead of placing such an emphasis on testing, the students show what they have learned through projects.
► What are the criteria for charter school teachers?
Charter schools are required to have at least 50% of their teachers licensed by the state. If they don’t have a license, they have to teach in an area in which they have a degree or expert knowledge. Some people look at that 50% as a problem with charter schools, but I don’t. As a lifelong educator, I can tell you a license doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the quality of a teacher. Basically, it tells you that that person passed a test. It doesn’t tell you if that person has any expertise in forming relationships with students or if that person might have exceptional skills in science or arts. I knew plenty of licensed teachers and they were great. There were others who were licensed, and they were horrible.
► How does state funding for charter schools compare with traditional ones?
Our schools get about 70 cents on the dollar because we don’t get funding for capital expenditures. That means the schools have to fill that deficit in other ways, often by fundraising. The budgets of the charter schools are just cut to the bone as much as possible to be able to find a facility and make it work.
► How do schools made up largely of students from lower-income families handle fundraising?
That’s where schools have to really rely on seeking outside funding from third parties like grants.
► Are all charter schools equal if some have greater access to fundraising?
Nobody has ever asked me that. I guess that some are better off than others. I think that they would really have to rely on finding a good grant writer to help them seek those additional funds.
► What are the keys for successful charter schools versus those that have closed?
Sometimes people look at the fact that charter schools have been shut down as a concern. To me it’s not a concern at all. If a school is not meeting the needs of students, then it shouldn’t be open. In North Carolina (public) district schools can continually run for years and years, and nobody questions the fact that they might or might not be meeting the needs of students. Some of the charter schools that have been closed in the past have been closed for financial reasons. I would say the schools that are the most successful are the ones with the most transparency.
► What information has to be made public?
Charter schools are required to undergo a financial audit every year. There’s also something called the performance framework, which is basically an accountability measure.
► How many N.C. charter schools are for-profit?
That’s another myth related to charter schools in North Carolina. All N.C. charter schools are nonprofit and run by nonprofit boards of directors. Some are affiliated with [for-profit] management organizations that can provide a variety of services from back-office support in the form of accounts payable all the way up to providing facilities and curriculum support. A lot of people see that as a criticism of charter schools. My response to that is show me a school that doesn’t do business with a for-profit business. They don’t exist.
► What is an example of a charter school that has helped students who were struggling in their assigned public school?
A shining star among North Carolina charter schools is Henderson Collegiate in Henderson. That community is economically disadvantaged and the students who attend that school, all of them go to college. Many of those students tell stories of coming from backgrounds where they might be the first person in their family to even graduate from high school. That school has done tremendous work in elevating the lives of students in that community. It’s about not allowing students to make excuses for their potential. They create a scaffolding where [students] are able to reach their potential. It’s the relationships they form with students and the support the school provides students. ■