A look at the history of public charter schools in North Carolina

Buckley Report

(WGHP) — In 1994, there was a sea change in politics. Republicans won 57 seats in the US House of Representatives and that wave filtered down to the states, where Republicans gained control of the North Carolina House of Representatives for the first time in a century.

When they finally got control – with years of pent up policy energy – Republicans were ready to move on a lot of issues, including education.

“This whole – the momentum around ’94, ’95, in that era – came out of, ‘Let’s give parents a choice,’” says Asheboro’s Harold Brubaker who, in 1994, became the first Republican speaker of the House in North Carolina since Zeb Walser of Davidson County’s brief, two-year stint at the tender age of 27 — in 1894.

One of the key issues Republicans used in 1994 to regain the house was educational choice. Both vouchers – tax dollars given to families to use as they see fit for education, including at private schools – and public charter schools were on the agenda. Through negotiation with Democrats, Republicans settled on charter schools only and on June 20, 1996, they passed a bill establishing charters. Charters are public schools but, unlike traditional public schools, they don’t have to answer to a central office at the Department of Public Instruction in the same way the rest of the schools do.

The idea of charters was first proposed by Albert Shanker when he was the president of the American Federation of Teachers. In a speech to the National Press Club, Shanker proposed schools that could be teacher-driven and much more experimental. The idea was that volumes of research were indicating there may be better, more effective ways to teach that weren’t being fully explored.

The first state to jump into the game was Minnesota, which had its first charters in 1991, when Republican Gov. Arne Carlson lead the fight there. But, for years, the idea of charters was bi-partisan. Both the Clinton and Obama administrations back the idea actively and although many Democrats – both politicians and in the general public – support charter schools, they’ve become a much more partisan issue, over the last 10 years.

“I think it’s a great effort to try to create innovation in our public school system,” says Dr. Omar Ali, the dean of UNC-Greensboro’s Lloyd International Honors College. “I think our public school system is based on a 19th century understanding of how to educate folks who were in a predominantly agrarian lifestyle – farms – to moving to cities.”

Although Dr. Ali says charters are something of a “mixed bag” of results, “There’s some really good work that’s being done, here.”

See more about why charter schools were created in North Carolina in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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