Politics & Government

A private school will become one of North Carolina’s newest charter schools

Three more charter schools have been approved to open this fall, including a private school that will make the conversion to becoming a public school after having survived the past few years with the help of North Carolina’s voucher program.

The State Board of Education unanimously gave approval Thursday to TeamCFA-Community Public Charter in Gaston County, Hobgood Charter Academy in Halifax County and Pocosin Innovative Charter in Washington County. The approval for Hobgood marks the second time in the past two years that state leaders have allowed a private school to become a charter school.

The vote means Hobgood Academy could receive more than $2 million a year in state funds, up from the $69,300 a year it now gets from the voucher school program. School leaders say Hobgood has to become a tuition-free charter school because it’s no longer able to meet the needs of the community as a tuition-based secular private school. (An earlier version of the story listed an incorrect amount received from the voucher program.)

“This school was founded in a time (1969) when this community was more economically stable,’ the school says in its charter application. “Family farms and textile mills were numerous.

“Today many families struggle to put food on the table and pay utility bills. They cannot afford to send their children to a private school.”

Enrollment had been in “significant decline” from 2010 to 2015 but has seen slow, steady growth in the past three years, which the school attributes to the Opportunity Scholarship program. The state provides low-to-moderate income families up to $4,200 a year to pay for tuition to attend private schools.

State records show that 18 of Hobgood’s 98 students are receiving vouchers.

Last year, the state board allowed Mountain Island Day School, a Christian private school in Charlotte, to become a charter school. Mountain Island had also received voucher students.

Charter schools are taxpayer funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules traditional public schools must follow.

There are 184 charter schools open statewide this school year but Hope Charter Leadership Academy in Raleigh is voluntarily closing in June and the Charter Schools Advisory Board is recommending that Charlotte Learning Academy be closed at the end of the school year.

This week’s vote means that 15 charter schools have been approved to open this fall. But at least one new school, Kaleidoscope Charter High School in Morrisville, plans to delay opening until August 2020 due to problems finding a building.

The number of charter schools has nearly doubled since state lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap in 2011. Public Schools First NC is calling on state leaders to put a new cap on charter schools.

In October, the state received applications from 35 new charter schools. Of that group, 14 requested permission to open in 2019 instead of waiting until 2020. The Charter Schools Advisory Board only recommended three of the 14 schools for an accelerated opening.

It was the third time that Hobgood applied to become a charter school. Alex Quigley, chairman of the Charter Schools Advisory Board, said that members feel confident Hobgood is ready now after listening to the concerns raised about their applications in previous years.

“We really kind of thought that they’d just go off and not come back and every time they come back and they say we have made these changes,” Quigley told the state board.

Hobgood’s enrollment is currently 88 percent white compared to 49 percent African American and 46 percent white in the community. White students account for 4 percent of the Halifax County school system’s enrollment.

A state judge charged in 2009 that “academic genocide” was taking place in the Halifax County school system. The state briefly took over operation of the district.

School leaders say that becoming a free charter school should help Hobgood more closely reflect the community’s demographics.

Hobgood plans to use a weighted selection lottery that would give preference to low-income applicants. Current private school students will have to apply and wouldn’t get selection priority.

The school also plans to provide school bus transportation, which is not required for charter schools.

“Given that area, we expect them to be in a position where they’re going to be serving low-income students,” Quigley said.

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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.