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Charter schools and Howard Lee: A complicated relationship

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This week the N.C. Public Charter Schools Advisory Council will review 27 "fast track" charter school applications. The Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School is among the applicants. The school received some media attention over the last few weeks, so I decided to examine the hubbub for myself.

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Howard Lee is a former Chapel Hill mayor, legislator, and chair of the N.C. State Board of Education. Most recently, he served as chair of Governor Bev Perdue’s Education Cabinet.

Now Howard Lee is on the outside looking in.

Lee is part of a group that seeks to establish a new, K-8 charter school in Chapel Hill, the eponymous Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School. To do so, he needs the approval of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Advisory Council, which meets this week, and the State Board of Education.

Lee always maintained the veneer of a charter school proponent, but he remained passive, thus complicit, during an era when members of the State Board of Education and staff at the Department of Public Instruction bullied and bureaucratized North Carolina’s public charter schools. Indeed, charter school applicants are lucky not to be applying for a charter during Lee’s tenure on the State Board of Education.

  • Charter school applicants will not encounter the frustration of limited slots due to a 100-school cap on charters, which Lee’s Democratic allies maintained a decade after demand for charter seats outpaced supply.

  • Unlike the dismissive SBE’s Leadership For Innovation (LFI) committee, appointees to the NC Public Charter Schools Advisory Council will use their considerable expertise to determine which charter applications are good enough to be presented to the State Board of Education for approval. Lee created the LFI committee to handle charter school matters after he eliminated the Charter School Advisory Board in 2007.

  • The NC Public Charter Schools Advisory Council will allow charter applicants to comment during meetings. The LFI committee rarely permitted public comment from charter school representatives.

Simply put, Lee will enjoy the kind of hospitable charter application process that applicants sought for years.

If the charter advisory council and SBE grant the charter, Lee and his associates will find that the application and approval process was the easy part. His school is already encountering opposition from district school boosters in Chapel Hill. Kevin Hicks, president of Parents Advocating for Children Together (PACT), and Tom Forcella, superintendent of the Chapel-Hill/Carrboro City Schools, publicly denounced the effort. Ironically, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP also opposes the school, despite the fact that Howard Lee was first African American mayor of a predominantly white Southern town. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Vitriolic advocacy groups have yet to add their opinion to what otherwise would be a constructive conversation.

It does not matter that Lee wants to create "a high-quality K-8 education that places each student on the path to college readiness and closes achievement gaps." In part, his charter school invites scrutiny because the school would team with National Heritage Academies (NHA), a for-profit charter management company that has operated schools in North Carolina for over a decade. Lee’s charter school plans to use the National Heritage Academies (NHA) Curriculum, which is a rigorous college preparatory program that places a strong emphasis on math, reading, science, and social studies. Lee argues that this curriculum offers low-performing students "more intensified attention that they can’t get in the public schools." That is an admirable goal.

In the end, members of the advisory council should determine the fate of the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School based on the merits of the application, not Lee’s record of public service or his complicated relationship with North Carolina’s charter school movement. Thus, I wish Howard Lee and the board of directors of the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School the best of luck.

Random Thought

Thank you, Japan Frito Lay, for the vision required to create a multi-course Doritos "meal," including Doritos Gourmet Clam Chowder, Doritos Gourmet Caesar Salad, and Doritos Gourmet Sausage. If you do not like clam chowder, you may choose Doritos Gourmet Corn Potage Soup. For the main course, Doritos with Steak and Jane’s Krazy Mixed Up Salt Seasonings is also available.

Facts and Stats

45,180 — North Carolina charter school students in Average Daily Membership (First month ADM), 2011-12


I would like to invite all readers to submit announcements, as well as their personal insights, anecdotes, concerns, and observations about the state of education in North Carolina. I will publish selected submissions in future editions of the newsletter. Anonymity will be honored. For additional information or to send a submission, email Terry at [email protected].

Education Acronym of the Week

NHA — National Heritage Academies

Quote of the Week

"It’s not my goal to get in a debate with the local system and [I] certainly don’t question the progress they’re making with some students, but some students regardless of what progress is being made can benefit from a different environment. Public school can never, in my opinion, rise to the point of having all students rise to the highest level because of the size and the diversity. But a charter school, if it’s run correctly, can take students and give them the more intensified attention that they can’t get in the public schools."
— Howard Lee quoted in "Orange County charter school to tackle gaps" by Katelyn Ferral, The News & Observer, December 10, 2011

Click here for the Education Update archive.


As Vice President for Research, Dr. Stoops oversees the research team’s writing and analysis across the spectrum of public policy issues. He specializes in pre-K-12 education. Before joining the Locke Foundation, he worked as the program assistant for the Child… ...

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