by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
On Tuesday, the Charlotte Observer reported that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools planned to use a book titled “Jacob’s New Dress” in all first-grade classes as part of the district’s anti-bullying efforts.
After teachers raised objections to the book, which tackles the “unique challenges faced by boys who don’t identify with traditional gender roles,” school district officials announced plans to replace it with “Red: A Crayon’s Story,” a book about “finding the courage to be true to your inner self” that apparently “can be read on multiple levels.”
Setting aside the issue of conflicting values and morals, parents and teachers were right to question the use of these materials in elementary school classrooms. Anti-bullying programs in the early grades need not address the various motives for the behavior but simply the behavior itself. That is because the types of cognitive operations needed to recognize complex, abstract concepts typically do not arise until the child approaches adolescence. I am not a child psychologist, but I think a compelling case could be made that “Jacob’s New Dress” is developmentally inappropriate.
Even more serious is the fact that “Jacob’s New Dress” is a distraction from the core mission of public schooling. Taxpayers invest billions of dollars in North Carolina public schools to ensure that all children receive a “sound basic education,” that is, the attainment of a core body of knowledge and skills that will enable all students to have an equal chance of success in their chosen career or college. Yet, state test results from 2016 show that only around 53 percent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students, and less than half statewide, are “career and college ready.”
For school districts that have appeared to abandon their focus on high-quality and developmentally appropriate instruction, parents are faced with a choice. Work within the district system to ensure that the focus remains on providing a “sound basic education” or choose a private, home, or charter school that better meets the educational needs of their children. Increasingly, parents are choosing the latter.
Mecklenburg County had a 44 percent increase in homeschooling between 2011 and 2016. Homeschool enrollment in the eight counties in the region (Cabarrus, Catawba, Gaston, Lincoln, Mecklenburg, Iredell, Rowan, and Union) has increased at a similar rate. Private school enrollment growth in the region has been more modest, only increasing 2 percent during this period. There has even been a slight decrease in private school enrollment in Mecklenburg County, although that may be indicative of the popularity of charter schools.
Not including the two statewide virtual charter schools, nine of the ten largest charter schools in North Carolina are in the eight-county region mentioned above. Franklin Academy, the third largest charter in the state, is in Wake County. The remaining nine Charlotte-area charter schools enroll approximately 14,000 students. That figure does not even include other large charters in the region, such as Piedmont Community Charter School in Gastonia (over 1,300 students) and Queen’s Grant Community School in Mint Hill (over 1,200 students) that did not make the top ten. All told, tens of thousands of parents have opted to send their children to charter schools in the area. Many cross county lines and travel great distances to do so. Tens of thousands of additional parents never get the chance.
According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Charter Schools, over 37,000 students are on one or more charter school wait lists. And that December 2016 survey included only 103 of the state’s 167 charter school in operation. While Office of Charter Schools officials did not provide additional details in their report to the state legislature, there is little doubt that Charlotte-area parents are well represented in this figure.
What can be done? Currently, state statute permits charter schools to increase their enrollment by 20 percent each year. The State Board of Education may authorize enrollment growth of greater than 20 percent if certain conditions are met. It is time to increase the yearly enrollment cap or issue waivers that authorize charter schools with sizable wait lists to provide as many seats as their infrastructure will allow. Such measures could later be reversed when the supply of charter school seats is able to meet the demand.
In sum, the best response to the “Jacob’s New Dress” controversy has nothing to do with launching an investigation, reprimanding the district, or taking even more drastic or punitive measures. Rather, lawmakers should do something positive – ensure that every family in North Carolina has the access and the means to high-quality educational options.