Politics & Government

NC charter schools have nearly doubled since 2011. Some say it’s time for a new cap.

The ABCs of Charter Schools

Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart.
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Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart.

The number of charter schools in North Carolina has nearly doubled since a state cap was lifted in 2011, prompting a debate about whether it’s time to put a new limit on these non-traditional public schools.

Public Schools First NC says the state should reset charter school growth instead of adding new schools or expanding existing ones. The group is asking people to sign an online petition that calls on state legislators to put a new cap on while a comprehensive review is done of charter student performance, fiscal management and the impact of charter-related policies on students, public schooling, and taxpayers.

“We can look at having a cap,” Natalie Beyer, a member of the board of Public Schools First and a school board member in Durham, said Thursday. “If there’s going to be charter schools, there can be a very limited number of high-quality schools as originally intended.”

But calls for a new cap are drawing opposition from charter school supporters who accuse their opponents of being scared of competition. The N.C. Association For Public Charter Schools is countering Public Schools First’s petition by urging people to contact state lawmakers to let them know how important charter schools are to them.

“We don’t want to have any kind of halt to the progress that we’re making because there are over 50,000 student names on waiting lists for the charter schools that currently exist,” said Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association for Public Charter Schools. “That just tells us that parents are looking for opportunities that match their student’s needs.”

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow, such as providing school meals and bus service and having all of their teachers be licensed.

The first group of 34 charter schools in North Carolina opened in 1997. Growth was slow until the new Republican majority in the state legislature lifted the 100-school limit in 2011. There are now 184 charter schools statewide, with the number potentially rising to more than 200 schools this fall.

The combination of more charter schools, vouchers for families to attend private schools, continued growth in homeschooling and a decline in births has helped cause North Carolina’s enrollment in traditional public schools to drop four years in a row.

Hundreds of proponents of school choice, including NC Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, cite the benefits of non-traditional education options during a rally in Raleigh, NC Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

Since the 2014-15 school year, the state’s traditional public schools have lost 27,144 students while charter schools have added 39,875 students. Some school districts have cited loss of students to charter schools as a reason for closing schools.

The percentage of white students is higher in charter schools than in traditional public schools. But charter schools are seeing an increase in both the number of students of color and low-income students.

“We believe right now there isn’t enough consideration given to the financial impact charter schools are having on school districts,” said Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina. “There’s not enough consideration being given to the impact charter schools have on racial segregation in school districts.”

But school choice supporters point to data that shows that charter schools have a higher percentage of schools receiving A and B grades on the state’s school performance system than traditional public schools. They also point to how many different groups of charter students are outperforming peers at traditional public schools on state exams.

“The competition is paying attention to the success of our schools and the success is clearly spelled out in the annual report drafted by the Office of Charter Schools,” Dillingham said. “In almost every tested subject, charters outperform non-charters.”

But Matt Ellinwood, director of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, said what’s more revealing is how a lower percentage of charter schools are meeting academic growth targets on state exams than traditional public schools. The state’s letter grades are based primarily on passing rates on exams as opposed to growth targets.

Ellinwood said it’s no coincidence that a lower percentage of charter schools that opened after 2012 are meeting growth targets than charters that opened before the cap was lifted. He said the absence of a cap has meant a lower quality of charter schools being approved now.

“We need to make sure we’re only approving schools that are best suited to open,” he said.

Now that Democrats have gained enough seats to break the GOP legislative supermajority, Beyer of Public Schools First said the group decided to make bringing back the cap part of its legislative agenda for 2019.

“I understand the political realities of how things had been run under supermajority control,” Beyer said. “It is our hope that since this is not a partisan issue that there can be a bipartisan discussion about improving state policy and law.”

Brian Jodice, a spokesman for Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said bringing back a charter cap would halt the educational progress that the state has made. He said the old cap of 100 schools was an arbitrary number and that there’s no magic number for the number of charter schools that the state should allow.

“I believe the genie is out of the bottle on this,” Jodice said. “You can’t unring that bell. I would hope that the legislature would look at this as nothing more than pitting one side against the other.

“They eliminated the cap for a reason: to promote educational choice in our state.”

Poston of the Public School Forum said he understands why some groups want a new cap on charter schools. But instead of a cap, the forum’s list of top education issues in 2019 called for state lawmakers to make changes that the group says would increase transparency and accountability for charter schools.

“Choice and charter schools are here to stay,” Poston said. “I want to make sure that we as a state have a smart charter school policy. I want to make sure that we’re not doing more harm than good.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.

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