by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
When school officials from Kestrel Heights Charter School reported that 160 of the school’s 399 graduates did not meet state graduation requirements, the anti-charter Left complained that the situation was a “symptom of overall weak oversight” that necessitated “a need for close oversight of charters.”
But the problem of awarding, what I call, “fast pass” diplomas does not appear to be more prevalent in charter schools than in district schools. For example, news that approximately one-third of Tennessee students graduated from high school without earning the necessary credits in 2015 suggests that public schools are not immune to incompetent tracking student progress through high school. Indeed, oversight is a necessary but not sufficient remedy for the problem of unearned high school diplomas.
In their January 2017 report, “Seamless Pathways: Bridging Tennessee’s Gap Between High School and Postsecondary,” the Tennessee Department of Education discovered that tens of thousands of students failed to meet the state’s 22-credit high school course requirement. State education officials found that “in 28 percent of high schools, less than half of graduates met all course requirements, even though the necessary courses were offered within the school.”
Alabama public schools also awarded numerous unearned diplomas despite multiple layers of government oversight. Late last year, Michael Sentence, Alabama’s state school superintendent, reported that the state had awarded “diplomas that were not honestly earned” due, in part, to public school districts that allowed students to graduate despite not fulfilling state graduation requirements.
Fortunately, there is no evidence that large numbers of North Carolina’s public schools are playing fast and loose with graduation requirements, although incidents of malfeasance are not unheard of. Nearly six years ago, a handful of students attending Garinger High School in Charlotte, including the school’s valedictorian, failed to meet state graduation requirements but received a diploma anyway.
Others prefer to find workarounds in the existing system. In a 2015 article titled “In North Carolina, Cutting Diploma Requirements,” NPR affiliate WUNC reported that school officials look for ways to reduce the number of required courses to make it easier for at-risk students and dropouts to graduate. Today, there are unanswered questions about other shortcuts, namely the utilization and quality of credit recovery courses, which are pass/fail courses that have no effect on a student’s grade point average, athletic eligibility, or student’s postsecondary institution admission eligibility.
If charter schools perpetrate the kind of systematic fraud identified by school officials in Tennessee and Alabama, they are usually shuttered. And rightfully so. One of the most basic responsibilities of a high school is to ensure that students successfully complete courses required for graduation. To do so, the school must simply have a team of competent administrators, teachers, and counselors who conduct periodic reviews of transcripts and advise students and parents accordingly. Failing to do so is unfair, even cruel, given that it forces a young adult, through no fault of their own, to modify their postgraduate plans. But, as we know, districts play by different rules, receiving virtually unlimited dispensation from their overseers.
Speaking of dispensation, Carolina Journal reporter Kari Travis reports that the N.C. State Board of Education (SBE) will not take action on the Kestrel Heights matter until March. In the meantime, supporters of Kestrel Heights have flooded SBE member email accounts with pleas to keep the high school open. I believe that they will have no choice but to close the high school indefinitely.
Aside from that agonizing decision, the board must begin to consider the need for measures that will ensure fidelity to the state’s graduation requirements. But it is important for the SBE to not reflexively impose reams of new rules and regulations on all charter schools. It’s possible that Kestrel Heights was the lone offender. It’s also possible that there are repeat offenders in both the charter and district sectors. That is why the SBE’s first step should be to commission a study similar to Tennessee’s “Seamless Pathways” report. It is necessary to understand the scope of the problem before acting. Certainly, there is no need for a “close oversight of charters” based on the acknowledged failings of a single school.