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Remember when the state started its charter school experiment in the late 1990s? It sounded like a promising concept.

Unfortunately, the state Senate seems bent on ruining what’s left of that good idea.

These free public schools, supported by tax money, are supposed to offer educational alternatives. Because charter schools aren’t bound by all the regulations that control public school districts, the thinking was that they could be creative, pioneering programs that might turn out to be useful in all of the state’s schools.

But even without strict operating regulations, the charter schools are supposed to provide a good education with results that can be measured on the state’s end-of-grade and end-of-course tests.

What’s not to like?

A lot, the way things are playing out lately.

A bill passed by the state Senate would lower standards for charter schools, allowing them to operate even if their students are performing worse than children in traditional public schools. The bill says that charter schools should be renewed for 10 years unless the percentage of their students who are proficient on end-of-grade tests is more than 5 percentage points worse than students in the local district.

This continues an unacceptable double standard in accountability for charter schools. Remember, the premise was that charter schools would provide sound educations for their students while leading the way in innovative approaches that might be models for all schools. Instead, they would be allowed to fall behind and hurt the cause of education across the state.

If that’s not bad enough, the bill also would eliminate the enrollment cap on two struggling online charter schools, Connections Academy and North Carolina Virtual Academy. Both are virtual schools that have consistently received “D” grades on the state’s performance report cards for schools, and their students are not meeting growth expectations.

One of the senators supporting the bill argued that parents should be able to determine what works best for their children. “Virtual charter schools are evaluated every day and every year by the parents who choose to enroll their students in them,” Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican from Mitchell County, argued.

Yet the state regulates, micromanages and evaluates most traditional public schools to a degree that often seems excessive.

How can senators justify wanting to encourage more enrollment in virtual schools that are failing?

It’s hard not to think that lowering standards and expanding charters is related to legislators’ support of vouchers that give parents tax dollars to send their children to private schools. Both programs give lip service to “choice,” and both have contributed to a disturbing resegregation of schools.

An N.C. Justice Center report says that while early on, charter schools attracted many minority children, these days they serve “an increasingly white population.” Over the years, the legislature has weakened laws requiring charter schools to reflect the racial composition of their districts. Today, the report said, charter schools tend to be more segregated than the other schools n their districts.

Charter schools were supposed to improve education across the state, not undermine it. And they certainly weren’t supposed to roll back the progress that’s been made over the last half century by helping to resegregate the schools.

This misguided bill should not become law.

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