The ABCs of Charter Schools
Here are answers to some common questions about charter schools in North Carolina.
Q: What are charter schools?
A: Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are independent of local boards of education and school districts. Enrollment is not restricted by county.
Q: How many charter schools does North Carolina have?
A: The state has had charter schools for 20 years. In the inaugural year of 1997, 34 charter schools opened. The legislature lifted a 100-school cap in 2011, and charters have proliferated since then. The state now has 173 charters, with concentrations in urban counties. The charter school population has more than doubled since 2011, while overall enrollment in district schools is stagnant.
Q: How are they funded?
A: Charters receive state, local and federal money to educate students, but they do not receive money to pay for school buildings. State funding for charter schools has grown from almost $17 million in 1997 to $513 million in 2016-17.
Q: How do charters differ from district schools?
A: Some charters were created to concentrate on specific student needs or specific teaching techniques, such as improving achievement for struggling students or emphasizing project-based learning. Charters are not required to provide transportation or meals, though some do. Popular charters choose students by lottery because they have more applicants than available spaces. The schools are free from certain state laws and regulations. For example, they do not have to adhere to the state calendar law, leaving them free to set their own start and end dates for the school year. They do not have to pay teachers according to the state salary schedule, and only 50 percent of their teachers are required to hold state licenses.
Q: Who approves charter schools?
A: A state Charter Schools Advisory Board reviews applications for new schools and gives its recommendations to the State Board of Education. The state board accepts or rejects the recommendations. The State Board of Education is made up of members appointed by the governor subject to confirmation by the legislature, with two seats reserved for the publicly elected state treasurer and lieutenant governor. The advisory board also reviews charter schools’ performance and makes recommendations for renewing and revoking charters.
Q: How does the student population differ from district schools?
A: Overall, the student population of charter schools is more white and less Hispanic than the traditional public school population. Charter students are also less likely to come from low-income families. Most charter schools have either a largely white population or a largely minority population, according to a News & Observer analysis.
Q: How do charter school students perform academically?
A: According to the state’s school performance grading system, charter schools had more A and B ratings, as well as more F ratings than traditional public schools, which had a higher concentration of schools in the average range. A group of researchers found charter schools’ performance is similar to that of traditional public schools. An N&O analysis of end-of-grade test scores for 3rd to 8th graders in 2016-17 in reading and math shows younger low-income charter students performed as well as students from low-income families in traditional schools. But among low-income students in middle-school grades, charter students showed higher proficiency rates.
Sources: State laws and N.C. State Board of Education annual charter schools report