Quality Education Academy

A Winston-Salem charter school has become an unlikely basketball powerhouse in recent years, winning three national high school championships and sending more than a dozen former players on to Division 1 colleges.

But the success of Quality Education Academy‘s boys basketball team rests on a strategy prohibited at most public schools—recruiting top players throughout the nation and world.

It also offers a window into the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s struggles to hold charter schools accountable as the schools become a larger piece of the state’s public education system.

An N.C. Policy Watch investigation found two-thirds of the players on Quality Education Academy’s basketball rosters from 2008 to present came from other states and nations to attend the K-12 school. Their educations were subsidized by taxpayers who sent $13.2 million in state, federal and local funding to the school for the same time period, according to state education estimates and budgets provided by the school.

The investigation also found that the N.C. Department of Public Instruction failed to follow up on its own 2011 probe into funding and enrollment issues at the charter school.

Questions about Quality Education Academy’s basketball program highlight criticisms and challenges DPI faces in overseeing charter schools, the privately-run and publicly-funded schools poised to grow rapidly with strong backing from the Republican-led state legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

The basketball program at Quality Education Academy (QEA) is a set-up impossible to recreate at most North Carolina public schools.

North Carolina specifically prohibits recruitment of students for athletics across school district lines, much less state and national boundaries.

But QEA’s status as a charter school means it can opt out of joining the N.C. High School Athletic Association, which enforces the N.C. recruitment rule for public schools. Instead, QEA and a handful of private high schools with strong basketball programs formed their own athletic association in 2011, the Greater Carolina High School Athletic Association. The new league allows coaches to recruit players from elsewhere, just not from the six schools that form the association, according to the association’s rules.

Even though the small charter school has fewer than 100 high school students, QEA has attracted basketball players from countries like Nigeria, Serbia, Canada and the Bahamas and states including California, Michigan, Georgia and Virginia since the basketball program began in 2008. Parents signed over temporary guardianship to Isaac Pitts Jr., a basketball coach with a criminal past and a side recruiting business, according to documents obtained from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction through a public records request...

The state education agency began looking at QEA closely in January of 2010, after three Serbian students sent June Atkinson, the state superintendent of schools, an email begging for help. The students, who left their Balkan nation to attend the Winston-Salem school, were instructed to pay Pitts, the coach, $4,000 each to attend the school, according to a copy of the email obtained by N.C. Policy Watch. Johnson, the school’s CEO, responded that the students came as part of a “cultural diversity and exchange” program and had agreed to the fee associated with a separate recruiting operation Pitts was involved in...


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