One of the goals in erasing the state’s charter-school limit was for the schools to be able to open in rural counties. Yet more than six years after the legislature removed the cap on the number of charter schools, 40 of 100 counties still have no brick-and-mortar charter.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest says he’s working to get more charter schools open in rural and poor areas of the state. It’s easier for charters to open in wealthy areas, Forest said, because they don’t have to offer as many student support services, known as “wrap-around” services.
“It’s pretty easy for a charter to go into a wealthier neighborhood and say ‘we’re going to plop a charter in here,’ and they don’t have to have all those wrap-around services that a poor community does,” he said.
Forest, a Republican and prominent charter proponent, said he’s talked to charter organizations about opening schools in high-poverty, rural regions of the state with large percentages of black and Hispanic students.
“That’s where you’re going to find the low concentrations of school choice,” he said.
Dave Machado, director of the state Office of Charter Schools, said he wants to put “a big emphasis on increasing the number of charter schools in rural areas,” but acknowledged the challenges of starting schools in counties where per-pupil spending is lower than in urban counties.
Charters get a share of county education funds, based on the home counties of students enrolled. State funding for existing charters is based on where the schools are located.
Per-student payments to charters are generally higher for children from urban counties that can put more local money into education. Moreover, a study last year by the N.C. General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division found that allocation of state funds for teacher salaries favors wealthy districts because they have the most experienced, best-credentialed, and best-educated teachers.
Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Republican from Archdale who sponsored many of the bills that helped charters grow, said market forces push charter applicants to choose locations for new schools in high-growth areas in and around urban counties. Some of these new charter applicants want to open near existing charters that have waiting lists.
Tillman said it makes financial sense for charters to target heavily populated areas because they need to have enough students, and the per-pupil spending allotments that come with them, to pay for buildings.
“Market forces are always at play at anything you do,” he said. With capital expenses to recoup, “would we set one up out in the wilderness where we can’t ever get our money back? No.”
Some charters in their applications say they want to open in fast-growing areas because there is a demand.
For example, the application for Rolesville Charter Academy, a school that National Heritage Academies will run in northern Wake County, says the charter will be successful because of the area’s growth. Plans are to open the school in 2018. “Rolesville has become the fastest-growing town in North Carolina since 2010, increasing our population by a stunning 52 percent,” the application states.
Nearby schools run by National Heritage Academies, a for-profit company that manages charters, have waiting lists, the application notes.
“With our community’s explosive population growth, overcrowded schools, and the significant parent demand for a school such as ours, we know RCA will be successful. Rolesville is an excellent place to locate our new charter school,” the application says.
Other organizations are looking to help charters expand in rural counties.
The Carolina Small Business Development Fund announced in May that it is offering up to $5 million in loans to charter and private schools that want to expand. The fund is a community development financial institution that focuses on rural businesses and those owned by women or minorities. Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina will review applicants and pass its recommendations to the lender.