Charter schools are nonsectarian public schools of choice that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. Since the first one opened in Minnesota in 1992, the movement has grown to an estimated 1,800 schools nationwide. The schools are designed to offer parents an alternative to traditional public schools, to encourage innovative teaching and to improve student learning. While critics say end of grade tests suggest charter schools aren't offering the best education, parents of children in charter schools strongly disagree.
Eleven-year-old Chelsea Lafferty used to hate going to school. When she was in third grade she attended a regular public school in her neighborhood. "I was always known as the kid who always knew everything and so I would be teaching other kids how to do stuff if they didn't understand and I didn't get as much attention on what I needed," she says. "I felt like nobody cared how I felt."
Chelsea says she was bored and frustrated. "I was starting to get so depressed I wouldn't want to leave anywhere, I just wanted to stay at home and I was scared about everything," she says. "And I was mad at myself for being the way I was."
So, three years ago, Chelsea's mother enrolled her at Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy, a charter school for gifted students.
Third graders here are learning math beyond their years. And by the time they leave as eighth graders they will have mastered algebra and geometry. The school's director, Marie Peine says Metrolina is able to push gifted kids in a way that many traditional public schools cannot. "The traditional practice for gifted education is that students would be pulled out of a regular classroom for a couple of hours a day," she says. "The traditional curriculum is why a lot of times gifted students aren't successful in the classroom because they can't move ahead as quickly as they need to."
But that's not the case at Metrolina, where the entire curriculum is geared to fast learners. Children also get individualized attention and small class sizes, which was everything Chelsea Lafferty was hoping for. "I'm very happy at this school - I make grades, and even if they're not the best, there still good for me because I know I'm being challenged and I can't get perfect grades all the time and it makes me want to go to school and learn," she says.
Most of the students at Metrolina have above-average intelligence. So it's not surprising that all of the students are performing at or above grade level on end of grade tests.
But even in charter schools where students are not doing well on standardized tests, parents are still happy. Tyrone Cherry sent his son Terrence to Sugar Creek Charter, a school the state has designated as low-performing. "Terrance has really improved, we have definitely seen a change in him... he's more focused," he says. "He used to be frustrated coming home in terms of doing his homework, he was lost, he wasn't receiving what he needed [at the other school]. Now, with the personalized training, and dedicated one-on-one handling, we're not seeing that as much as we were."
Sugar Creek Charter also teaches character education and discipline. That's one of the reasons Edith Bolden chose the school for her daughter. "So far as the social interaction where the kids are taught how to get along from Day One, I know that doesn't happen in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system," she says.
Charter school parents say being able to choose a school that offers something different for their child is important. And that's something that often doesn't show up on test scores. That's why State Board of Education Chairman Phil Kirk says the success of charter schools as a whole shouldn't be based solely on what's on paper. "Charter public schools are just like traditional public schools... some have nearly 100 percent of their students on grade level, then some other charters and traditional public schools aren't doing well," he says. "The vast majority are in the middle and it's impossible to compare one to another, in as easy a way as the public would like us to."
Many parents and educators, like Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy Director Marie Peine, believe North Carolina needs to open more charter schools in order to accurately gauge their success. "Statistically speaking, the more numbers that you have, the better your results are going to be, at least more valid," she says. "So let's get more charter schools out there, let's try more different things."
North Carolina law limits the number of charter schools to 100 statewide. There are already 95. Otho Tucker, the state's Director of Charter Schools, says the cap is limiting parents' choices. "If you're a choice proponent, you'd like to have some opportunity to choose something other than a traditional school, in many parts of our state that's really not an option," he says.
And, says Mr. Tucker, the additional competition for students will force both charter schools and traditional ones to do a better job educating children. This year, North Carolina received an almost $4 million funding increase from the Bush Administration to help develop and expand charter schools in the state. But it will be up to the state legislature to decide if the educational experiment will expand.