House Bill 514/Session Law 2018-3 would allow four Mecklenburg County municipalities – Cornelius, Huntersville, Matthews, and Mint Hill – to undertake the charter school application process and, if successful, operate charter schools with their jurisdictions.

These municipalities cannot open charter schools at will.  As someone who has navigated the charter school application process, I can attest that it is not easy, and success is far from guaranteed.

Like all other applicants, the governing bodies of these municipalities will need to assemble a board of directors who will complete the lengthy application and pay the $1,000 application fee by the September deadline. To give a sense of the amount of work involved, the application for the school that I co-founded, Carolina Charter Academy: A Challenge Foundation Academy, was 63 pages and included 125 pages of appendices.  While application templates exist, text cannot be cut and pasted from other applications and data required to complete the application is specific to the school.

All applications are evaluated carefully by external reviewers commissioned by the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB), which has 11 voting members appointed by the legislature, State Board of Education, and lieutenant governor.  After an initial review that assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the application using on established evaluation rubric, applicants are required to respond to concerns raised by reviewers.  Typically, the applicant submits written responses to the CSAB, but members may ask the applicants to participate in a 30-minute in-person clarification opportunity in lieu of a written response.

If the responses are satisfactory and the application outlines sound academic, governance, and financial plans, the board is invited to participate in an interview with the CSAB.  After gathering all relevant information, CSAB members vote on whether to recommend the school to the State Board of Education for approval.  Only around half of those that apply pass muster.  The State Board will vote on the recommendations and are not obligated to concur with the advisory board.

Unless the board applies as a Fast-Track Replication or Acceleration school, which allows the school to open in the fall following State Board approval, the charter school is required to complete a series of planning year tasks coordinated by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.  One or more municipal charter schools may open as early as the fall of 2019, but a lawsuit or other factors, such as difficulties building or procuring a facility, may force a 2020 or even 2021 start.

In addition to the application itself, I suspect that the CSAB will focus on the provision that allows municipal charter schools to give enrollment priority to residents of the municipality.  Members of the advisory board always consider the demographics of the students who are likely to attend the school, although there is some disagreement within the board whether the lack of racial and economic diversity is a deal-breaker.  Regardless, municipal applicants will need to convince them that the schools will make a sincere effort to reach out to African American, Hispanic, and low-income families.  If they are unable to do so, the application will be denied, and the applicants will be forced to reapply.

The bottom line is that families who are eager to pull their children out of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and send them to a municipal charter school may need to wait much longer than expected.  In most cases, opening a charter school cannot be done quickly, nor should it be, given the resources and responsibilities that are involved in operating a school.  This should (but probably won’t) give some measure of relief to those who have declared that municipal charter schools will destroy public education as we know it.