Charter schools are supposed to offer a free, independent alternative to traditional public schools. North Carolina has just over 100 of them, and the state board of education is expected to approve 25 more at its February meeting.
One charter in Winston-Salem has made basketball a big priority. Quality Education Academy touts the number of recruits its had to Division I basketball schools. The school’s website features highlight reels of players set to music (some of it too explicit to broadcast).
Many team members have been from outside North Carolina, and in some cases outside of the United States. QEA got in trouble with the state a few years ago for using tax dollars to pay for these students. The school says it’s not doing that anymore, but the situation has raised questions about the role of state money in supporting the school’s basketball program.
Sarah Ovaska is an investigative reporter with NC Policy Watch, which is an arm of the left-leaning NC Justice Center. She’s investigating Quality Education Academy, and she spoke to Morning Edition host Duncan McFadyen:
MCFADYEN: Sarah, is QEA’s primary purpose to cultivate basketball players?
OVASKA: Well, I think if you talk to the school, their primary purpose is to reach disadvantaged youth in the Winston-Salem area. But, the school has what I see as a very unusual situation where they have a basketball team where they’re actually pulling from outside the state and outside the country in order to bring in players that are really playing at an elite level.
A lot of the school’s players—for a very small charter school, less than 100 people in their high school—have gone on to play Division I ball in just the four years that the school’s basketball program has been up, which is subsidized by taxpayers, as all public charter schools are funded with taxpayer money.
MCFADYEN: How many students are actually from outside of the country?
OVASKA: The state had actually done an investigation, or a probe, into the school and found that at one point, up to 20 students were coming from other nations. They were coming from places like the Bahamas, Serbia, Nigeria, Canada. At that point, the school had actually been charging the state for these international students, so taxpayer money was directly paying for these students’ education. The state, in about 2010-11, said “we’re not going to fund them anymore,” and so that funding stopped, but the school continued to take in these international players.
MCFADYEN: A lot of the players have coaches listed as their guardians on their state paperwork. First of all, is that legal?
OVASKA: Well, I think it depends on who you talk to. In North Carolina, our rules are generally that you need to attend the school where your guardian, which is your court-approved, court-ordered guardian, lives. And so, that’s generally if you had a parent who is—if the court recognized that they were your guardian, you could attend whatever school’s in your district.
In this case you had parents basically signing off paperwork saying, “yes, this basketball coach can stand in as the guardian of my child.” And the state, when they were looking at QEA in 2010-11, brought that up. They said, “this isn’t enough to allow these students to attend North Carolina schools.” But then the state kind of dropped things, and they didn’t really move much further on that.
MCFADYEN: Is it clear how much state money is going toward the basketball program at this school.
OVASKA: No, it’s not. One thing that I found that was curious, is that public charter schools don’t have a separate budget for athletic teams. Just the set up of charter schools, which are essentially private schools that are run by non-profit organizations but funded with public money.
There’s not the same level of oversight as we’ve come to traditionally expect from most public schools. From talking with the school officials, they did say the salaries of the coaches come out of the general fund, which is taxpayer money, as well as things like funding school travel and whatnot for the team.
MCFADYEN: Does this expose a weakness within the charter school oversight system in North Carolina?
OVASKA: I think so, and I think it was probably the most surprising finding in my investigation is that the state, you know, essentially had looked into this issue of bringing in international students to play basketball, and essentially they had taken some pretty strong action, and there was some strong oversight. And then, in about April of 2011, they just dropped it.
From best I can tell from talking with state employees as well as this charter school, is that the state basically just forgot about it. They say they’re charging tuition now, 2000 a student for these basketball programs. There’s questions that is that allowed under how we run charter schools in the state. Part of charter schools is that they be tuition free. These are public schools, tuition free, that anybody can attend.