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Barlow's Beat

Barlow Herget is a commentator and host on SGR Today. He has been a commentator on UNC public radio and an instructor in continuing education at Duke University. Herget was a Nieman Fellow ('70) at Harvard University, has worked for the Daily Press of Paragould, Ark., the Detroit Free Press, and the News & Observer of Raleigh. His articles have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times and numerous other publications. Have something to say to Barlow? Contact him by email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  

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Barlow's Beat
By Barlow Herget   
Thursday, 17 February 2011 01:54

Growing up a Southerner, I learned that when my elders talked about The War, it was not World War I or World War II.  It was the Civil War.

It was a reminder of William Faulkner's famous observation that "the past is never dead, it's not even past."

Which brings me to the charter school bill working its way through the General Assembly.  The bill reminds me of the attempts by white Southern segregationists to get taxpayers to pay for their private, segregated academies that flourished during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s.

The current charter school movement began in Minnesota and Massachusetts, hardly bastions of Jim Crow.  The movement gained support, and Southern conservatives became champions of charter schools along with vouchers as free market alternatives to poorly performing public schools.  Charter schools, they argue, will offer competition in the education marketplace that will result in better schools all around.

The movement has been viewed with suspicion in the South because it is seen as a new backdoor to the old idea of segregated academies financed by public monies.  The record in North Carolina isn't encouraging, either.

A 2006 study by Robert Bifulco and Helen Ladd and a 2007 report by the NC Center for Public Policy Research showed charter students lagging behind public school students on end-of-grade tests.  More recent data show this trend reversing.

But the doubts about segregation remain, and two national studies last year concluded that charter schools promote segregation, whether it is blacks in the minority or whites.  The current charter bill only adds to the suspicion.

It lifts all caps on the number of schools that can be chartered.  It removes oversight from the Department of Public Instruction and even the state Board of Education.  But most troubling, it removes the requirement that the schools reflect the racial composition of their communities.

Public school advocates worry that charter schools will drain the best and brightest, regardless of race, from public school enrollment.  Students who attend charter schools generally benefit from smaller class sizes.  Their parents are more supportive of education with money and time.  Without these students and parents, the public schools will be left with the least motivated students.

And there's the old race issue.  One of the best charter schools in the country, Raleigh Charter School, enrolls 10 percent black students in a county system where black students comprise 25 percent of the enrollment.

To paraphrase Harvard's Gary Orfield, the race to the top in North Carolina charter schools should not become a race to the past.

Last Updated on Thursday, 07 April 2011 23:30

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