by Rhonda Dillingham
In North Carolina, we’re celebrating 25 years since the law creating public charter schools was passed. Over 1.5 million charter school graduates later, we know that students thrive when given the options for success that work best for them. However, the anniversary also reminds us that our work is far from finished.
First, the good news. Let me tell you about a recent win for our state’s students that we’re proud of in North Carolina. In late August, Gov. Roy Cooper (a Democrat) and our state Legislature (Republican majorities in both chambers) passed and signed into law a wide-ranging COVID relief bill for K-12 public schools (also known as Senate Bill 654). The new law was a win for all North Carolina students and their families.
For existing and aspiring public charter families and students, the legislation was a particularly timely victory. It allows charter schools to provide a virtual instruction option this school year — an option that was already available to district-run public schools.
In a time when it seems one party has to lose for the other to win, North Carolina’s Democratic and Republican elected officials rose above the partisan divide and came up with real solutions that address the needs of families, students, and communities. This across-the-board support for students who thrive best in charters was a recognition that numbers don’t lie. According to the most recent North Carolina Annual Charter Schools Report , enrollment of North Carolina students in charter schools increased during the pandemic from 117,000 in the 2019-2020 school year to 126,000 as of Oct. 1, 2020. And the growth is being limited by supply, not by demand, as another 76,000 students statewide are on waitlists for charter schools.
This bipartisan success story was born from our experience in North Carolina after 25 years of charter schools, which demonstrates that lasting and positive change comes from leaders who put good policy before partisan politics. In 1996, when supporters of the legislation to create charter schools were trying to get the bill across the finish line, they received strong support from opposite sides of the political spectrum — former Democratic President Bill Clinton came to North Carolina to advocate alongside then-Republican Speaker of the State House of Representatives Harold J. Brubaker. That’s the kind of strong, bipartisan support that charter schools should have in 2021.
There’s a lesson here that is applicable beyond North Carolina’s borders. The discussion about charter schools is not some winner-take-all battle. In such fights, the real losers are our students. When we all decide that the solution is to make students the winners, then we’re fighting on the same side.
However, there is still much work to do. Even after a quarter of a century of charter schools, we’re still battling the same naysayers from the 1990s who asserted that charters would not improve our state’s public education system.
President Biden should reconsider his decision to limit charter funding and growth. Charter schools comprise up to 50% of the educational choices in some states. Limitations on families’ access to them will have devastating and long-lasting effects on individual students and communities reliant on strong academic instruction and school wraparound support.
As we rebuild our education system from the pandemic, it is imperative that we allow our students to continue flourishing in schools we know are prepared to serve their needs and communities. For 25 years, charter schools have demonstrated that they can boost student performance and foster substantial academic achievement within communities that were generally underserved. This is not the time to stop buttressing districts and communities that deserve high-quality educational options.
As a lifelong advocate and veteran educator, I practice what I preach. My own daughter graduated from our local district-run public school, which was the best option for her. During that same time, I also founded a charter school in our area, which also met the needs of students in my community. They found that it provided options and filled the needs that our local district-run public school couldn’t provide.
Many local and national policymakers did exactly what I did and sent their children to schools that worked best for them — private, public charter, or district-run schools. Policymakers have a responsibility to enact policies and encourage support of charter schools because their constituents’ children deserve the same options they enjoyed.
The last 25 years and the last few months in North Carolina show that when parents and policymakers debate like their children’s futures depend on it, the right answers aren’t that hard to figure out.
Rhonda Dillingham is the executive director of the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools.