Politics & Government

Won’t ‘cave in’ to ‘anti-charter folks’: NC board stands by 2 new Wake charter schools

A state advisory board is standing behind two proposed charter schools despite concerns raised by Wake County school leaders and some PTA groups that the area is oversaturated with charters.

The N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board voted a second time Monday to recommend approval for North Raleigh Charter Academy and Wake Preparatory Academy to open in 2020. The State Board of Education had sent both charters back to the advisory board for further review because of the last-minute concerns raised by Wake schools.

Advisory board members said Monday that Wake should have submitted its concerns to the state soon after its feedback was requested in October instead of waiting until June right before the state board vote. They also said that the state board should respect their position because they’ve recommended only 30 percent of the charter applications since 2011.

“The worst message we could send to the state board and to the charter community is that we’re going to cave in to that kind of last-minute pressure when folks don’t follow proper procedure,” said Joe Maimone, a non-voting member of the advisory board.

North Raleigh Charter Academy is a K-8 charter school that would be managed by Charter Schools USA, a for-profit company that operates several schools in the state, including Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary.

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

The state board is required under state law to decide by August whether to approve the two new schools. Last week, the board had voted to approve 10 charter schools to open in 2020, including three in Wake.

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. They also have more flexibility in how they spend their money, don’t have to follow the school calendar law and don’t need all their teachers to be licensed.

The number of charter schools has shot up statewide since the Republican-led state legislature voted in 2011 to lift a previous cap of 100 charters. Between the new charters opening this fall and those scheduled to open in 2020, the state will have more than 200 charter schools by next year.

After the Charter Schools Advisory Board previously recommended five new charter schools for Wake County, some PTA groups and school district leaders lobbied the state board not to approve them. They were countered by school-choice supporters who pointed to long waiting lists of more than 1,000 students apiece at several northern Wake charter schools.

The advisory board, which is made up of charter school supporters, argued that parents should be given the option to choose where their children attend school. They noted multiple times Monday how the district grew by only 42 students this year at a time when charter enrollment is surging in Wake.

“I’m not sure that saturation is a problem,” said Steven Walker, vice chairman of the advisory board. “I think in the end this starts to become a philosophical question and to put it maybe I guess as bluntly as you can, the question is, ‘If parents aren’t making the choice we like maybe we shouldn’t let them have the choice.’”

Wake Prep offered to make changes to ease concerns, including lowering how many students it would take and increasing the percentage of low-income students it would try to enroll. But advisory board members said that they’ll leave it up to the state board to decide whether it wants to add any conditions to approval.

“The diligence has been done by this board and deserves to move forward without any stipulations or any changes because of last-minute pressure from anti-charter folks out there,” Maimone said.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

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.