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State legislators should be congratulated for eliminating the 100-school cap on charters and tweaking the charter school law over the last four years.  North Carolina’s charter school community is thriving thanks to their work. 

But several threats to that prosperity remain — de facto restrictions on the growth of brick-and-mortar and virtual charter schools, conflicts about the scope of the state’s public information law, and concerns about low enrollment in a handful of new charter schools.

In this week’s CommenTerry, I briefly examine each of these issues.

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North Carolina is fortunate to have a robust and diverse charter school sector.  Currently, the state has 148 charter schools that enroll over 67,000 students.  Just five years ago, North Carolina had 96 charter schools and a combined enrollment of nearly 38,500 students.  While this growth is impressive, there have been several challenges along the way.

First, the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) appears to be reluctant to recommend that the N.C. State Board of Education approve charter schools with certain characteristics.  Earlier this year, the CSAB approved only 11 of the 71 applications for new charters, a significant drop from a year earlier. 

According to some accounts, the motivation for rejecting charter applications had little to do with the quality of the proposals or the competence of those behind them.  Rather, the CSAB appeared to reject applicants who planned to contract with charter management companies, which provide instructional, financial, and facilities services to schools that do not have the resources to support these functions on their own.

Second, the courts and public school advocacy groups have slowed the introduction of statewide virtual charter schools.  Fortunately, the N.C. General Assembly passed a law this year that requires the State Board of Education to "establish a pilot program to authorize the operation of two virtual charter schools serving students in kindergarten through twelfth grade." 

Two applicants met the deadline, the North Carolina Virtual Academy and the North Carolina Connections Academy.  Interestingly, the plain language of the law specifically directs the state to authorize two virtual charters.  Barring any shenanigans, both applicants should receive approval from state education officials to begin offering coursework next year.

Third, the issue of charter school transparency has been in the news.  Earlier this year, the North Carolina legislature approved language that outlined charter school requirements under the state’s public information law.  The law only requires charter schools to provide "personnel records for those employees directly employed by the board of directors of the charter school." 

Yet, in an August 13, 2014 DPI memo, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, and subsequently media outlets and school districts, requested that charter schools relinquish all financial and personnel records, including all records from management companies contracted by the charter.  The latter appears to go a step beyond the requirements of the law as written.  Nearly all charter schools complied with the request — with one notable exception.  Schools operated under The Roger Bacon Academy have refused to disclose financial information about the management company, prompting the N.C. State Board of Education to place those schools under double secret probation.

Finally, a handful of new charter schools have not met enrollment projections.  In most cases, these enrollment shortfalls are the product of insufficient outreach and recruitment efforts, rather than a reflection on the quality of the school itself.  Unlike district schools, charter schools do not have a built-in mechanism — compulsory attendance — that forces students to enroll and stay enrolled unless their parents opt for an alternative.  The biggest challenge for charters is making parents aware that alternatives exist.

Despite these challenges, there is much reason for optimism.  North Carolina has a thriving charter school sector that continues to reach underserved areas of the state, perform better (on average) than district schools, and expand educational opportunities for students regardless of their circumstances.  It would be a mistake to believe, however, that these recent successes are safe from an educational bureaucracy that often holds charter schools in low regard.

Facts and Stats

North Carolina General Statutes, Chapter 115C-238.29A:

(a) Purpose of Charter Schools. – The purpose of this Part is to authorize a system of charter schools to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently of existing schools, as a method to accomplish all of the following:

(1)  Improve student learning;

(2)  Increase learning opportunities for all students, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who are identified as at risk of academic failure or academically gifted;

(3)  Encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods;

(4)  Create new professional opportunities for teachers, including the opportunities to be responsible for the learning program at the school site;

(5)  Provide parents and students with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities that are available within the public school system; and

(6)  Hold the schools established under this Part accountable for meeting measurable student achievement results, and provide the schools with a method to change from rule-based to performance-based accountability systems.

Acronym of the Week

CSAB — Charter School Advisory Board

Quote of the Week

"I think that many people in the Charlotte area are really not too familiar with charter schools and all the things they have to offer.  At the end of the day, it’s the parents’ decision on where they want to take their kid. And if they don’t know anything about you, they won’t trust you."

– Pamela Farewell, chairwoman of Charlotte Learning Academy, in "Charlotte-area charter school enrollment falls well below projections," Charlotte Observer, November 11, 2014

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