Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that have more freedom than district-run public schools but are required to meet certain state regulations, such as participation in the state accountability program. In 1996, the N.C. General Assembly passed charter school legislation. Twenty years later, charter schools are among the most popular and successful schools in the state.
Much of the growth in charter school enrollment can be attributed to recent revisions of the state’s charter school statutes. In 2011, the N.C. General Assembly eliminated restrictions on growth that originated in the 1996 charter law. Lawmakers removed the 100-school cap and authorized charter school enrollment to grow by as much as 20 percent a year, up from the previous cap of 10 percent, which had led to long wait lists and few open seats.
The 2011 charter school legislation also created a new oversight group, the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board. The purpose of the board is to review and recommend charter applications to the N.C. State Board of Education for approval. The council also assists the Office of Charter Schools in its ongoing effort to ensure that charters maintain high academic and operational standards.
In 2013, legislators also approved a bill that permits established charter schools to add one grade per year without approval from the State Board of Education. Additional revisions to the state’s charter school statutes provided much-needed stability and relief for families with multiple children by virtually guaranteeing sibling admission. Finally, lawmakers reduced teacher certification requirements for charter schools, allowing them to hire more teachers based on qualifications rather than credentials.
Finally, in 2014 lawmakers approved legislation that allows two virtual charter schools to begin operating in North Carolina. The following year, the State Board of Education approved applications submitted by N.C. Virtual Academy and N.C. Connections Academy, both of which began offering online courses in the fall of 2015.
Despite these positive changes, charter school applications continue to outnumber available seats. Unfortunately for families, there is no immediate relief in sight. It will take several years for new and existing charter schools to accommodate the pent-up demand created by 15 years of ill-advised restrictions on charter school growth.
- According to N.C. Department of Public Instruction data, the statewide average expenditure for charter schools during the 2014-15 school year was $8,080 per student. At the same time, the average district school spent $8,784 per student to cover operating expenses and an estimated $451 per student for capital expenses. Unlike school districts, charter schools do not receive state or local capital funding or county-funded debt service payments on their behalf.
- While North Carolina’s 158 charter schools are physically located in only half of the state’s counties, all families have access to charters. Students are permitted to cross county lines to attend the charter school of their choice. In addition, the state’s two virtual charter schools allow students anywhere in the state to enroll.
- As of the 2015-16 school year, enrollment in the state’s 158 charter schools had grown to nearly 82,000 students, an increase of 83 percent over the previous five years. Still, charter school students represent only 5.4 percent of the total public school population in North Carolina.
- According to data collected by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction in 2015, charter schools statewide had an estimated 32,000 students on wait lists.
- Since the authorization of charter schools in 1996, 43 charter schools have closed and 13 charters were relinquished before opening. Closure is a form of accountability unique to charter schools.
- Based on 2014-15 state test results, a higher percentage of charter schools earned school performance grades of A, B, or C than district schools.
- The State Board of Education should repeal any policy or regulation that sets student performance standards for charter, but not district, schools. All public schools that administer state tests should be subject to the same accountability rules.
- Lawmakers should allow municipalities and counties to support the capital needs of charter schools within their jurisdictions. Elected officials should be allowed to add capital funding for charter schools into their annual appropriations or when incurring debt for capital outlay.
- The state should restructure the charter school funding system. State law should prohibit the practice of routing charter school funding through school districts. Instead, all charter schools should receive their appropriation directly from its source, whenever possible.