New charters stir emotions, but time is a healer
When we reported that Mountain Discovery Charter School and Swain County commissioners were working together to hopefully build a gymnasium, the symbolism of that relatively small venture almost went unnoticed.
Mountain Discovery was founded 15 years ago by an independent-thinking and hard-working group of Swain parents who beat the odds and started a school during the era when there was a 100-school cap on charters in North Carolina. Its leaders did not win many friends among Swain’s public school supporters and from county commissioners who provide funding to the school system.
Just like in many places across the country, it was feared the charter would siphon off high-performing students and their families, weakening the traditional public schools.
But Swain commissioners, perhaps, see that emotions have quieted and that, in this case, there can be a mutually beneficial outcome. By putting the wheels in motion to sell land for the gym to Mountain Discovery, the county could see a huge benefit. The charter school will then have to raise funds to build the gym. Once built, the school’s 180 students would use the facility for only a small portion of the time it could be used. Swain County’s youths and adults would have an indoor facility for programming it currently can’t schedule. The county, in essence, will get to use a gym without having to pay for its construction.
And so it goes, the charter school and the county build a closer relationship and the early animosity fades further into history. Slowly and incrementally, as has happened with Summit Charter in Jackson County, so it will eventually happen in Haywood County with Shining Rock Classical Academy.
And that really is the point: new charters — like Shining Rock in Haywood — weaken the public school system’s foundation by siphoning funding and students. It hurts the public school system, particularly at first as school leaders adjust to the new reality. Emotions are high, feelings are bruised.
Unfortunately for Shining Rock, it opened its doors during an era of intense budget tightening from a GOP-led General Assembly that is generally critical of public schools. Legislative leaders have reduced per-pupil funding in many critical areas despite incremental increases in overall education spending. In other words, funding from Raleigh has not kept up with student population growth, salary increases for educators and overall needs, forcing schools to do more with less in the classroom. The state’s per-pupil spending and teacher pay are embarrassingly low.
The legislature’s refusal to fund public schools at an adequate level and Shining Rock’s opening both contributed to Central Elementary’s closing. That fact has also strained the relationship between Haywood’s new charter and public school supporters.
But time heals many wounds. The bottom line is that the new normal is school choice, whether passionate public school advocates like me support the movement or not.
In the end it’s about doing what’s best for students. A healthy, open relationship between the region’s charter schools and its traditional public schools is in the best interest of taxpayers and their children.