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Charter-school interest higher in Charlotte area

By Ann Doss Helms and T. Keung Hui
ahelms@charlotteobserver.com khui@newsobserver.com

The Charlotte area continues to dominate North Carolina in charter-school interest, with 63 of 170 letters of intent to open new schools in 2015 coming from Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.

Mecklenburg alone has 43 letters, a preliminary sign that operators plan to file a full application by the Dec. 6 deadline. By comparison, there are 20 for Wake County and another 19 for the rest of the Triangle area.

Depending on how many submit applications and clear the lengthy review that follows, the state’s lineup of 127 charter schools could be in for a huge expansion.

“We welcome the growth of high quality charter schools in North Carolina as they offer a valuable option to help meet the academic needs of our 1.5 million public school students,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said in a statement. “Our public charter schools have helped to increase our graduation rate to the highest in state history, and we look forward to working with these applicants as they formalize their plans to open new schools in 2015.”

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. They are also independent of the school districts in which they’re located.

The number of charter schools has expanded sharply, especially in the Charlotte region, since legislators eliminated a 100-school cap in 2011.

The 127 charters that are open statewide could serve as many as 65,000 students this year. Six of the 23 new charters that opened this year are in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.

The number of schools could grow to 153 next year; the State Board of Education gave preliminary approval last week for 26 charters to open in 2014. Eleven are in the Charlotte region.

Reasons for the intensity of interest remain unclear. Critics of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools say it’s dissatisfaction with district schools, which still serve about 80 percent of the county’s school-age children.

School board Chairman Mary McCray disagrees. She noted that CMS already offers many of the themes that charter schools are touting, from math-science magnets to credit-recovery programs for at-risk teens.

“They are basing their themes on us,” McCray said. “It’s not like we’re copying them.”

Eddie Goodall of Union County, a former state senator who now heads the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, theorizes that it boils down to risk and reward. There are plenty of potential students in Charlotte and its suburbs, while less densely populated areas pose a bigger risk of failing to draw enough students to survive. Meanwhile, counties that provide more for their local school district also channel a per-pupil share when students go to charters, making the potential reward richer in Mecklenburg than in poorer rural counties.

But Goodall said he can’t explain why charters are proliferating faster in Mecklenburg than in Wake, which has the state’s largest school district.

“Maybe there’s a sense of Wake satisfaction levels being higher,” he said. “I am unsure, but it is a fascinating question that begs to be answered.”

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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