Politics & Government

Five new charter schools are proposed in Wake. Some critics fear that’s too many.

Wake County could see another major expansion in charter schools that is thrilling school-choice advocates but worrying school district and PTA leaders.

The State Board of Education may approve 12 new charter schools to open in 2020, including five schools in Wake County. The decision comes as charter school enrollment in Wake County has continued to rise, while overall growth in the Wake County school system has come to a near stop.

The state board is being lobbied by parents both for and against the new Wake charter schools. State education leaders are weighing whether charter school growth has reached a tipping point in Wake County, particularly in the North Raleigh/Wake Forest area.

“In the panel that we had the day before yesterday, the word saturation was used,” state board member Jill Camnitz said at Thursday’s meeting. “I’m wondering if this part of Wake County is approaching that point.”

The state board will vote on the schools in June. The state board has seen significant turnover in the past few years, resulting in Democrats now holding a majority of the seats.

Charter schools are taxpayer funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow. For instance, they’re not required to provide school bus service or serve school meals.

The number of charter schools has shot up both statewide and in Wake County since state lawmakers voted in 2011 to lift the cap on the number of these non-traditional public schools.

There are 24 charter schools open this year in Wake County, with another set to close in June. An additional new charter is set to open in Fuquay-Varina in August and another plans to open in Morrisville in 2020. If the five new ones are approved, there could be 30 charter schools in Wake in 2020.

Enrollment growth in charter schools has exceeded the school district’s growth for three of the past five years and is expected to do so again this fall. This school year, charter schools added 1,324 more students from Wake County, while the school district grew by 42 students.

“There are thousands of kids on charter school wait lists for schools in Wake County,” Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation, said in an interview Thursday. “This signals there continues to be a demand for charter school seats. The new charter schools that plan to open are seeing tremendous interest from parents in those areas.”

Stoops’ wife is head of the new charter school opening in Fuquay-Varina.

‘Charter school tax’?

Charter students account for 8% of the public school students in Wake County so that’s how much of the local funding that charters receive. Wake school board chairman Jim Martin says that students, for instance, are paying an 8% “charter school tax” when they pay the annual $200 parking fee to their high school.

“It makes no sense that charter schools get 8 to 9% of the money to repair school bus engines when they don’t have school buses,” Martin said in an interview Thursday. “It doesn’t make any sense that charter schools have calendar flexibility when public schools do not.”

School district leaders say $7 million of the $48.9 budget increase they may ask for from county commissioners this year is for money to give to charter schools.

During a budget work session, school board members talked about whether they can shield some of the money they have to give to charter schools. Staff warned that it could create legal issues.

In this climate, the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board has recommended five new charter schools in Wake in 2020:

CE Academy, a K-8 Chinese language immersion school in the Cary area.

Doral Academy, a K-6 school in Garner.

North Raleigh Charter Academy, a K-8 school that would be managed by Charter Schools USA.

Wake Preparatory Academy, a K-12 school in Wake Forest that would be managed by a charter school operator who made millions of dollars building, selling and leasing properties to the schools he runs in Arizona.

Wendell Falls Charter Academy, a K-8 school in Wendell that would be managed by Charter Schools USA.

The five schools project they’d draw 2,927 Wake County students in their first year and 4,243 students in the fifth year.

Low-income students

State board members said Thursday they want more information on North Raleigh Charter and Wake Prep. Parents at several Wake County school PTAs in the North Raleigh/Wake Forest area have mobilized against the two charter schools.

The North Raleigh/Wake Forest area is oversaturated with options, including district schools, charter schools and private schools, according to Leslie Fielding-Russell, PTA president of Jones Dairy Elementary in Wake Forest.

“There is plenty of choice,” Fielding-Russell said in an interview. “We don’t need anymore. We want to keep the funds in our Wake County Public Schools.”

State board member James Ford cited concerns raised by the PTA parents that the percentage of low-income students would be much lower at the two charter schools than at the nearby traditional public schools.

“What I am always on guard about is that we are creating a system that is increasingly creating pockets in isolation — racial and economic isolated pockets of poverty — and in schools that are the inverse of that where they are wildly affluent,” Ford said.

Steven Walker, vice chairman of the Charter Schools Advisory Board, said Wake Prep intends to give selection priority to low-income students.

State board member JB Buxton questioned the level of innovation that would be provided by the new charter schools.

“When I go through the North Raleigh Charter application and the Wake Prep application, I don’t see anything that I don’t think that you find at public high schools in that area or public schools in that area.,” he said.

But State Superintendent Mark Johnson, a Republican, said that many parents also want the new charter schools.

“I’m also hearing from parents who say this is the programming they want for their students,” he said.

One of the questions raised is the level of crowding in that part of the county, with charter applicants citing growth in the North Raleigh and Wake Forest area. But the PTA parents are saying their schools are under-enrolled and that the new charters would exacerbate the situation.

“I don’t think that that necessarily negates that it’s a good idea for parents to be able to choose where to send their students even if a school may be slightly under-enrolled in that area,” Walker told the state board. “It’s not an either-or thing.”

Camnitz, the state board member, said she has to think of both the students in the charter schools and in the traditional public schools as she weighs her vote.

“I do feel the same concern about the effect of a school this size in an area that has many traditional public schools and many charter schools and the effect that it will have on the students remaining in the schools in the (district),” she said.

State board members say they want more data on the crowding by the June meeting.

Martin, the Wake school board chairman, said the district’s budget needs will become even more challenged if additional charter schools are approved.

“If there is disproportionate growth in charter schools vs. public schools you actually end up having a smaller fraction of each appropriated dollar going to its intended use,” he said.

But Stoops of the Locke Foundation said that Wake school leaders and the PTA parents should put the focus on making their schools more attractive for families to attend instead of opposing additional charter schools.

“The PTAs have every right to advocate on behalf of their school and to be worried about the effect charter schools have on their schools,” Stoops said. “But the problem is not charter schools. They just don’t like the choices they’re making.

“Rather than trying to make their schools more appealing to parents, they’re looking for other ways to undermine the growth of charter schools in Wake County.”

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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.