Surge in New Charter Schools Worries N.C. Educators

Limits on charters eased by new laws

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If the next round of 2014-15 charter school applications are approved in North Carolina, the state could double the number of charters in operation there within three years.

A 2011 overhaul of the state's charter school law by a Republican-controlled legislature lifted the 100-school cap on charters and relaxed laws controlling how the publicly financed but independently run schools can operate.

The change has raised some concerns among district officials about the quality of the new charters that have been approved and the impact the new schools could have on traditional schools.

The tensions come after a separate law, passed last year, dissolved the former charter school board and created a new advisory board made up of charter supporters. It also removed districts' right to submit impact statements with charter school applications. The changes created an environment viewed as more charter-friendly.

North Carolina currently has 127 charter schools in operation. The state approved eight new charter schools in 2012-13 and 23 this school year. The state school board recently approved the opening of 26 new charter schools for next school year, and the state's newly created Charter School Advisory Board has announced that it will consider putting 62 other charter applications on the runway toward state approval for opening in the 2014-15.

"We're still at the beginning of this next phase of growth in North Carolina," said Nina Rees, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Lifting the Cap

The rapid growth of charters in North Carolina isn't unusual, although the number that open after a cap has been lifted varies from state to state, said Ms. Rees. In states that lift caps but still have restrictive laws—such as Alaska and Iowa—the growth has been slower, she noted. The dramatic growth of charter schools in Michigan after the cap was lifted parallels what is happening in North Carolina.

In that state, a new law mandates that a new advisory board's members must have demonstrated "a commitment to charter schools as a strategy for strengthening public education." The goal was to give the board more independence from the state education department. The new board operates in an advisory function only; the state board of education still has the final say on approval of charter schools.

Heath E. Morrison, the superintendent of the 142,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, is among those who are wary about the sudden influx of charters in North Carolina. He said he supported lifting the 100-school cap, but does not support other changes to the charter school laws, such as only requiring half of the teaching staff to be certified and freeing charter schools from providing transportation or meal services.

Districts' right to submit statements of impact that the charter school would have on the community also was abolished by the law that created the new advisory board.

"My concern is not the loss of funding or parents choosing; it's about allowing charter schools to operate like private schools that are being funded through public funds," Mr. Morrison said.

'Economic Divide'

Bill Anderson, the executive director for MeckEd, a nonprofit nonpartisan education advocacy group in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, said the changes in the charter school laws are especially detrimental for disadvantaged students.

"Poor kids, kids who need transportation or food services, they're not going to be enrolling in these lotteries," he said. "It's become a racial and economic divide."

Ten of the newly approved charters are slated to open next school year within the district's borders.

Eddie Goodall, the executive director of the North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association, said that not providing transportation to charter schools isn't an attempt to shut out low-income students, but rather reflects the financial limitations of charter schools.

"We don't have a nice, tight attendance zone that we can limit our bus service. Some charters have enrollment from up to 11 counties, so that's very challenging from a cost standpoint," he said.

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He also noted that charter schools do not receive funds for facilities, forcing them to spend a portion of their operating budgets on capital costs and furthering the need for new charters to tighten their belts in other areas.

Joel Medley, the director of the state education department's charter schools office, stressed that the state is committed to ensuring that only high-quality charters are approved. Even after the state board grants final approval to charters, they are monitored for any red flags before they open, he said.

The state is also set to launch a new voucher program in 2014, which allows low-income students to attend private schools with public funds.

Both developments have motivated public school leaders to come together in protest of the changes, said Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Durham district.

"All of us are truly beginning to feel like we, as a system, are being attacked and that our teachers, in particular, are being left behind with these legislative changes," she said.

Vol. 33, Issue 19, Page 7

Published in Print: January 29, 2014, as Surge in Charter Schools Stirs Concerns in North Carolina
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An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Eddie Goodall, the executive director of the North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association.

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