The Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, a public charter school in Rutherford County, is quick to promote the school’s high SAT test scores and international field trips to China, Europe and South America.
But not as widely advertised is the Western North Carolina public school’s connection to John Bryan, a retired Oregon business executive and significant funder of the conservative school choice movement.
Nor is the school’s annual diaper drive for a local anti-abortion religious group, an activity that an expert says violates the Constitutional separation of church and state.
Bryan’s $37 million family trust, the Challenge Foundation, contributes heavily and regularly to conservative causes like challenging global warming research and scaling back government in addition to lending its name to public schools like the Thomas Jefferson charter school.
He’s a national figure in libertarian circles when it comes to charter schools, and spoke last June about the push to expand charter schools at an annual retreat held by the billionaire Koch brothers, according to a copy of the retreat’s agenda obtained by the Center for American Progress…
Out-of-state organizations like Bryan’s Challenge Foundation stand to play bigger roles in North Carolina’s public education system with the state on the verge of lifting a 100-school cap on public charter schools. The contentious GOP-sponsored Senate Bill 8, which would give charters more access to education funding in addition to lifting the cap, is expected to land on Gov. Bev Perdue’s desk shortly. She’ll then have to decide if it will become law or be vetoed…
…If it passes, the state would allow up to 50 more charter schools to open each year and oversight of public charters would continue to be slim..
Some of the new slots will likely be filled by schools affiliated with philanthropist-backed groups like Bryan’s Team CFA (the charter school arm of the Challenge Foundation), for-profit companies like the National Heritage Academies (which already manage five charters in the state) and “virtual charters” similar to K12, Inc., a publicly-traded Virginia company paying a lobbyist this year to go to the N.C. General Assembly on its behalf…
The extent and influence of Bryan’s trust on the Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy and the three other Challenge Foundation Academy charter schools in North Carolina isn’t clear, with only limited tax records available in the public record to examine the connections.
But two members of the Challenge Foundation, Bryan’s daughter Cheryl Reinstadler and the foundation’s national school director Joan Lange, sit on the board of Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, flying in for meetings and make decisions with the eight other members of the board about the school’s curriculum and management, as well as the $7.6 million in public funds the school runs on…
Faunce, the school board member who worked at the school as a dean of students in its first years, says the charter school and TeamCFA have no political agenda that makes its way into classrooms…
That may not be the case, however.
An NC Policy Watch investigation found that the school’s activities include only one political club — a Young Republican’s Club – that has a mission to “shape the future of Republican politics in North Carolina by recruiting, engaging, training and mobilizing a new generation of conservative leaders,” according to the school’s website.
More contentious is the school’s annual diaper drive for a Hands of Hope for Life, a pro-life ministry in nearby Forest City that provides services to low-income women with children under the age of three and “has a general concern for sharing the love of Jesus Christ through both actions and words” by providing information about prenatal development, abortion and abstinence education.
Joel Medley, the acting director of the N.C. State Board of Education’s charter school office, said that because charter schools are independent non-profits, separate from the state education agency, there’s nothing to prevent the public schools from taking part in activities like a diaper drive that benefits religious anti-abortion groups.
But others feel differently, including Barry Lynn, the executive director of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State as well as an ordained minister with the Church of Christ.
“This is clearly an unconstitutional program,” Lynn said. “This charter school is connecting itself to a religious ministry.
“They can’t do things like that,” he said…
An often cited 2009 national study of standardized test results by Stanford University scholars, found that for every charter performing better than the traditional public schools in its area, there are two charters either at or below or the performance of their public school counterparts.
The study found things were slightly better in North Carolina where charter school students’ reading skills were higher overall than students in traditional schools, but that their math skills were significantly worse off than their peers in traditional schools. Black students in the state tested significantly below their peers in math, and there was no difference in reading, according to the Stanford report.
When it comes to racial makeup of charters, Duke professor Helen Ladd recently surveyed the state’s charter schools and found schools tended to be either primarily white or black. Out of the 99 charter schools in North Carolina, 37 had populations comprised of more than 80 percent white students while 26 schools have populations that are less than 20 percent white, she said.
The state Department of Public Instruction doesn’t keep track of the household income levels of charter school students, something it does track for traditional public students…
Giving rise to tension in the larger community about charters was a lawsuit filed in 2009 by Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy against the Rutherford County School System seeking more funding the charter schools says it’s entitled to. An appeals court is expected to weigh in soon on the suit, in a decision that charters across the state are watching to increase the funds they get from public school system…
Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy
This is an extensive article which is packed with information. Be sure to read the whole thing.
CHARTER’SCONSERVATIVE BACKERS RAISE QUESTIONS. North Carolina Policy Watch 20 Apr 2011