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N.C. Opinions: Greensboro

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An explosion of charters

The pace of charter school growth is rapid. This promises opportunities and creates challenges.

The directors of the Global Innovative STEAM Academy in Greensboro say there’s unmet demand for math, science and arts education here. They plan to offer 576 seats in grades six through 12 when they’re in full operation. This month, the state granted a charter for this school to open its doors next year.

A dozen more Guilford County proposals were filed last week [along with 63 from Mecklenburg and surrounding counties]. They were among 171 letters of intent delivered to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. These schools would open in 2015.

The number is daunting, but experience shows that fewer than half of those letters of intent will lead to formal applications due in December. And perhaps half of those will be approved.

Still, proliferation is swift. The former cap of 100 charter schools in North Carolina was lifted just two years ago. This school year began with 127 charters. Next year, there could be 153 charters.

Every charter school proclaims a special mission. Goals and methods can appeal to parents whose children haven’t been successful in current settings, want a special curriculum or need a new challenge. Because these are public schools, there is no tuition.

But new charters don’t have any academic track record. School leaders might not have backgrounds in education. Many teachers may lack certification or strong credentials. Facilities, not funded by state or local governments, may be lacking.

Yet some post excellent scores on state tests. Others show lower reading and math scores than the state average.

It’s hard to tell in both cases whether their students would fare better, worse or the same in traditional schools. Perhaps that’s for their parents to decide.

Because charter schools take thousands of students out of traditional schools, they can save taxpayers the cost of building new facilities. On the other hand, the sudden collapse of a charter school can leave the local system scrambling to find chairs for abandoned students.

The assignment for state education officials is to scrutinize applicants carefully and make sure they have sound financial and academic plans, a suitable facility and capable educators. While there is no legislative limit on charter school expansion, there should be practical limits.

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