Nearly 30 new charter schools could open in the Triangle in 2014, shaking up the region’s public-education landscape and providing additional competition for local school districts.
The local applicants range from purely local groups to those with ties to national organizations and for-profit charter-management companies. Their missions are also wide-ranging, including programs targeting special education students, or low-income students or males. Schools are also proposed for those interested in learning more about the military, or science and technology.
“We see a lot of pent-up demand for the alternatives that charter schools can provide,” said Norman George III of Raleigh, who is helping 10 new charter schools open across the state in 2014, including three in the Triangle. “After the cap was removed, it’s sort of like seeing a dam break.”
The Triangle applicants are part of a wave of more than 150 new charter schools that could open across the state in 2014. The prospect of the new schools is raising concerns from those at traditional public schools about the diversion of tax dollars that would result from students opting for charter schools.
“The potential of unlimited charter schools in any district is worrisome,” said Heidi Carter, chairwoman of the Durham school board. “It makes it difficult to efficiently plan.”
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. Their numbers were limited to 100 schools until the General Assembly lifted the cap in 2011.
There are now 107 charter schools serving nearly 50,000 students. The population is small compared to the more than 1.4 million students enrolled in the rest of the state’s public schools, but their numbers are growing.
Twenty-five charter schools are awaiting final approval from the State Board of Education to open later this year.
With the high demand, groups that were interested in opening charter schools in the 2014-15 school year were required to submit letters of intent. A total of 156 letters were received by the Jan. 4 deadline.
The letters show that 13 new charter schools are proposed for Wake County, 11 for Durham County and two apiece for Chatham and Orange counties.
National groups want in
At least four of the proposed Triangle charter schools are affiliated with national groups.
American Charter Development, based in Utah, filed to form Challenge Charter School in Wake County. The company, which primarily works with charter schools in Utah and Arizona, helps charter school operators secure funding and construction of sites.
National Heritage Academies will manage the Wake Forest Charter Academy. The Michigan-based company already manages several North Carolina charter schools, including Research Triangle Charter Academy in Durham and PreEminent Charter in Raleigh.
Pearson, the textbook publisher, owns the company that would manage the North Carolina Connections Academy, a statewide online charter school that would be based in Durham.
The charter school arm of the Oregon-based Challenge Foundation is helping the proposed Excelsior Classical Academy in Durham. The Challenge Foundation is funded by John Bryan, an outspoken advocate of charter schools who has been criticized by liberal groups for his support of conservative causes and relationship with the Koch brothers.
“They will not be controlling the school,” said Cynthia Gadol, who will be Excelsior’s director. “They are merely there to provide support and ensure a certain level of academic and fiscal standards.”
Gadol said Excelsior will fill a valuable educational need with its focus on classical education, which includes teaching Latin and emphasizing critical thinking. The school will also use the Core Knowledge Sequence, which provides students a shared background knowledge in history, science, art and music.
Charter schools are allowed to target specific kinds of students but are legally required to accept anyone who applies. They’re required to use a lottery if they receive more applicants than the number of available seats.
Several of the schools would serve low-income, “urban,” or “at-risk” students or children from “vulnerable” neighborhoods.
“There’s definitely a need for educational leadership as it relates to disadvantaged and at-risk groups,” said Tyronne James of Durham, who has filed to open a pair of schools called the Paul Robeson Academic Academy in Wake and Durham.
At least two schools are designed for students with intellectual disabilities, a group that historically has not been served in large numbers by charter schools.
The Platinum School in Wake would target middle and high school students with IQs between 65 and 85.
Dynamic Community Charter School, also in Wake, would serve an even wide range of special-education students who have development and intellectual disabilities. Diane Morris, the school’s founder, said they realize that they’ll need to do extensive fundraising because of the higher-than-average cost of educating students with special needs.
“All we’re asking for is a chance to make it work,” said Morris, a Cary mother of two children with disabilities.
Other niches to fill
At least three applicants plan to focus on STEM education, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
“We’re getting significant support from the community” said Monica Cutno of Wake Forest, one of the founders of Envision Science Academy. “Everyday I hear we need it because Northern Wake lacks choices.”
PREP 360 Middle School for Boys in Wake would focus on helping boys transition to young adulthood. But state education officials say the school, if it’s allowed to open, would likely have to take female students who apply.
Triangle Military Academy would be a high school in Durham that would be run like a military school. Southpoint Academy in Durham wants to convert from being a private school to a charter school.
Durham could see a new charter school, the Antonio Academy, that would be run by a church – Greater Full Assurance Outreach Ministries.
“I know as a charter school we can’t incorporate religion,” said Joseph Ivey of Durham, pastor of Greater Full Assurance. “It has to adhere to the laws.”
Filing an intent letter isn’t the same as applying. George and Roger Gerber, who have both worked with charter schools in the state since the mid-1990s, estimate that perhaps as few as 80 may meet the March 1 deadline to submit a formal application to the state.
Gerber, who submitted letters for three charter schools, including one in Chatham and another in Orange counties, said he’s not sure if he’ll file. He said he’s considering opening the ABLE schools, which focus on online instruction and hands-on activities, as private schools, especially if legislation is passed allowing any family to get tax credits for private school tuition.
School systems adapt
Regardless of who is approved, Gerber said the school districts need to be ready for competition.
“Things have to change in traditional public schools,” he said. “If they’re doing a good enough job, people will not leave them. People are choosing with their feet.”
A report last year by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools showed Durham ranks 22nd out of all the counties in the nation in public charter school market share. In the past, school leaders urged that new charters not be approved in the county.
Now Durham school leaders are trying to come to an understanding with the charter schools on how they can work together.
In Wake County, there could be a sharp increase in the number of students who attend charter schools.
Victoria Eschler’s son, Augie, is only 21 months old, but the Raleigh mother was already attending an information session last week for Envision Science Academy. She’s studying alternatives to the Wake school system.
“We are firm, firm believers that education is the single most important thing,” Eschler said. “You keep hearing that the school board is going through all that turmoil.”
Wake County school board member Jim Martin said he’s not worried about the extra charter school competition. He said the schools in the district, particularly the high schools, all enjoy good reputations that will take the new charters years to achieve.
“We need to have strong academic programs,” he said. “As long as we do, I’m not concerned.”