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Charter schools poised for expansion in North Carolina

By T. Keung Hui
khui@newsobserver.com

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The next two weeks will determine how rapidly North Carolina’s charter-school movement expands, at a time when supporters say the schools are giving families more choices and critics say they’re harming traditional public schools.

On Thursday, the State Board of Education will vote on whether to give final approval to 26 charter schools – four in Wake County, one in Durham, one in Harnett County and 11 in the Charlotte area – that want to open this fall. It would mark the state’s largest single-year expansion of charter schools since the program was in its infancy in the late 1990s.

Next week, the state Office of Charter Schools will recommend which of the 71 charter schools that have applied to open in 2015 should go forward for further review. Those applicants includes eight in Wake County, eight in Durham and 31 in Charlotte and surrounding areas.

North Carolina could have more than 200 charter schools open in 2015 – double the number that existed until a state limit was lifted in 2011. With the help of a sympathetic state legislature, charters are poised to become a larger part of the public-school landscape.

“We have to change the mold so we can stop falling behind, not only in North Carolina but in the world,” said Eddie Goodall, president of the N.C. Public Charter School Association. “We should recognize that families are seeing charter schools as a better idea right now. We shouldn’t fear change.”

But the change is unwanted by groups who say that unfettered charter growth will come at the detriment of the traditional public schools that still educate most of the state’s students.

“The charters haven’t been more innovative or successful than the public schools,” said Yevonne Brannon, a leader of Public Schools First NC, a group that formed a year ago to protest state education changes. “Why are we rushing to dramatically increase the number of charters instead of trying to address the needs of our public school students?”

What is a charter school?

Charter schools are public schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. Some charter schools are managed by for-profit companies.

The General Assembly, then under Democratic control, authorized the creation of charter schools in 1996 but limited their number to 100 schools. In 2011, the Republican-led General Assembly removed the cap. There are now 127 charter schools compared to more than 2,000 traditional public schools.

Last year, state legislators approved several changes to help charters, including lowering the number of certified teachers they must have and allowing them to expand by one grade level each year without seeking state approval.

The General Assembly also created the Charter Schools Advisory Board to make recommendations to the State Board of Education on charter school applications and renewals. The new board consists of members who, according to last year’s state law, “shall have demonstrated an understanding of and a commitment to charter schools as a strategy for strengthening public education.”

On Jan. 13, the advisory board will begin the process of reviewing the 2015 charter schools that the Office of Charter Schools has determined to have submitted complete applications. The board could accept the recommendations or opt also to review the applications that were rejected as incomplete.

The advisory board will make its recommendations on new schools to the State Board of Education by the summer.

“If we’re going to offer parents a choice, we need to ensure it’s a high-quality choice,” said Baker Mitchell, a member of the new advisory board, a charter-school founder and board chairman of the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Historically, some school systems such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Durham have used a provision in the charter school law allowing them to submit impact statements objecting to the approval of new schools. That provision for these impact statements was removed as part of the legislation creating the new advisory board.

Durham schools losing millions

Durham school officials say they’re losing more than $14 million a year because of students attending charter schools. Durham students are going to not only the 10 charter schools in the county, but also to schools in other nearby counties.

Heidi Carter, chairwoman of the Durham school board, said charter schools are also making it hard to plan for the future.

“It’s difficult to factor what our space needs will be,” she said. “It’s difficult to accurately predict what the elementary school population will be in the district in the next five years.”

Carter said she worries that there’s no longer a formal process to raise concerns about charters to the State Board.

“I doubt all their passionate pleas will go very far with this state board,” said Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports charter schools.

Some applicants have ties to well-known political figures in the state. For instance, the chairman of the board of Providence Charter High School in Rockingham County is 6th District congressional candidate Phil Berger Jr., the son of Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger. The school is seeking final approval this week.

Republican political consultant Chris Sinclair would be the vice president of the boards for Capital City Charter High School and Central Wake Charter High School, both proposed for Wake County in 2015. Sinclair said he agreed to be part of both schools because they’re targeted at at-risk teenagers.

Francis DeLuca, president of the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank in Raleigh, has agreed to be on the board of the proposed James Madison Academy, which wants to open in 2015 in Wake County. One of the school’s goals would be to “emphasize building strong moral character.”

“I believe in charter schools, and I want to give parents more choices,” DeLuca said.

On the opposite side of the political aisle, J.B. Buxton would be chairman of the board of PAVE Southeast Raleigh Charter School, a new school for 2015 targeting low-income students. It’s modeled after the PAVE Academy, a charter school in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“It’s the kind of charter we’d like to see more of in North Carolina,” said Buxton, who was the education adviser to former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley.

It’s a position that puts Buxton at odds with some fellow Democrats, such as Brannon, of Public Schools First NC.

“Why should we set up a charter school in Southeast Raleigh?” Brannon said. “We should be providing more resources to the schools that are already there.”

But Stoops, of the Locke Foundation, said critics need to embrace the competition that charters are offering.

“I hope that districts ask why students are moving to charters and why parents are choosing them,” he said. “I’m hoping that their worry changes to appreciation of how competition helps education.”

Hui: 919-829-4534
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