The number of students in North Carolina's charter schools has more than doubled in the past seven years, but the number of these nontraditional public schools opening each year is slowing down.
State leaders used to receive as many as 90 applications a year with more than 20 new charter schools opening annually across North Carolina. But on Wednesday, the State Board of Education heard recommendations from an advisory board to approve eight new charter schools to open in 2019.
The applicants who will be considered Wednesday include Kaleidoscope Charter High School in Morrisville and three schools in Charlotte: Movement School East, Steele Creek Preparatory Academy and Steele Creek STEM Academy. A vote could occur in May.
“People have realized that the process is serious," said Alex Quigley, chairman of the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board. "It takes a high-quality application. You need to come before the board to explain why you should have a grant to open a charter.”
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The slowdown in new charter schools comes as some out-of-state companies have scaled back their expansion plans. Some operators are finding it difficult to secure school locations, forcing them to delay opening or to give up their charters.
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools — receiving $580.8 million in state money this school year — that are exempt from some rules that traditional public schools must follow, such as serving meals and providing transportation. Until a change in state law in 2011, the state was limited at 100 charter schools.
There are 173 charter schools open in North Carolina this school year serving more than 100,000 students.
"I don’t think we give parents, particularly low-income parents, enough credit for being able to choose what’s a good education for their children," said Quigley, who is also principal of Healthy Start Academy, a high-poverty, high-minority charter school in Durham. "Parents are looking for options for their kids in a time and an age where you can choose everything."
Part of the growth since the cap was lifted has come from charters managed by for-profit companies such as Florida-based Charter Schools USA and Michigan-based National Heritage Academies.
A spokeswoman for National Heritage Academies says the company is focused on opening two new charter schools this year — Rolesville Charter Academy and Johnston Charter Academy. Both schools were originally supposed to open in 2017.
In the past two years, National Heritage Academies has withdrawn four applications — including twice for the proposed North Wake Preparatory Academy.
In December, Richard Page, chief impact officer of Charter Schools USA, told the state advisory board that the days of opening five new charter schools a year in North Carolina are over. He said the company is focusing more on strengthening its existing schools, which have had a hard time keeping students due to concerns about high turnover among teachers and school leadership.
"We have intentionally slowed down our growth as a company," Page said. "What you’re seeing in North Carolina is very similar to what you’re seeing all across our company. We’re focused on quality very heavily right now."
Since that December meeting, Charter Schools USA has given up the state-approved charters for new schools that planned to open in Gaston County and in Knightdale. An issue in both cases was finding a site.
Site issues are also why Carolina Charter Academy in Fuquay-Varina and West Lake Preparatory Academy in Lincoln County are delaying their openings by a year to 2019. Bonnie Cone Classical Academy in Charlotte also won't open as planned this year.
"Facilities are such a barrier to charter schools opening on time," Quigley said.
Charter schools don't receive state or local money specifically for facilities. The schools typically use the money they receive to rent a location.
The number of applications for new charter schools has dropped from a high of 90 in 2012. Of the latest group of 29 applicants, the advisory board recommended 11 schools, including three approved by the state board to open a year early in 2018.
The three that already have been approved are a Christian school in Charlotte that will become a secular school, a high school in Union County that will offer a program focused on career and technology education and a 2,000-student school in Cary on the Chatham County border.
The future of the new mega-charter school in Cary is unclear, as town leaders have not yet approved a request to rezone the site where the school will be built.
Quigley said it has reached a point where 10 to 15 new charter school approvals a year is normal.
The advisory board is doing its job when it makes sure applicants have developed sound plans, according to Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association of Public Charter Schools. But she said the state also needs to be careful about not excluding applicants "who might have a difficult time speaking educationese.”
“We don’t want to discourage laypeople from submitting applications," Dillingham said. "The grassroots efforts are where charter schools began, and many of the people who are interested in opening a school of choice are not education people."
Ann Doss Helms of the Charlotte Observer contributed.