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State of N.C. charter schools

By Eddie Goodall
Special to the Observer

Three years ago, Sen. Richard Stevens of Wake County filed Senate Bill 8, “No Cap on Number of Charter Schools,” which eventually removed the 15-year, 100 charter school limit. This anniversary is a good time to assess the bill’s impact on North Carolina’s K-12 public education as well as where the charter movement is headed.

First, let’s look at the landscape today. There are 127 charters operating, with two facing impending closure. It should be noted that charters, by law, must meet minimum academic performance standards or face loss of the charter. Traditional public schools, or “district” schools, are not faced with such sanctions. Twenty-seven new charter boards will open schools this year, yielding 152 N.C. charters by this August.

Let’s look at classroom achievement. Charters continued to outpace their district school cousins in 2012-2013 in educational value added, or growth (85 percent of charters versus 71 percent of district schools). Also, according to data from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, 39.7 percent of charter school students in grades 3-8 were proficient in math and reading, while only 32 percent of district school students earned proficiency. Charters must administer the same tests required of the district schools while many also use nationally normed exams which give a better view of students’ progress when compared with their peers across America.

Let’s look at operations. Charters operate with about 15 percent less funding ($72 million a year) than that provided to district schools. Are parents still choosing charters? Yes. Twenty-two of the 25 schools that opened this past August had 75 percent or more of their year one enrollment limit reached and 18 of those exceeded 90 percent. There are 59,000 charter students in 127 schools. We have about 4 percent of public school students in charters versus 4.6 percent nationally. The students going to charters opening this year will likely increase our charter enrollment to that national average.

Now, where do we go from here? That’s a function of three things: the supply of charter founders and operators, the state’s capacity or willingness to authorize and regulate charters and parental demand for the schools. Let’s take one at a time.

There are a finite number of citizens and organizations willing to envision, create and run a school. This is done in two ways: by people in a community who want change and are willing to volunteer hundreds of hours; and by community boards that contract with for-profit (EMOs) and non-profit (CMOs) outfits who have expertise and are able to use capital, scale and experienced “models” to create academically and operationally effective charter schools.

The supply of charter founders is effectively choked by a lack of public information about how to start one. When one expresses charter annual growth as 2/3 of 1 percent of the total student population, the term, “explosive” charter growth, could be replaced by “lethargic” growth. Suggestion: charter supporters across the state should sense new urgency in getting the message out that the path for a new charter begins with a single person creating a spark.

North Carolina spends nearly $13 billion on K-12 education including federal, state, and local funds. There are seven employees in the Office of Charter Schools, a division of the DPI’s Financial and Business Services division. Assisting the authorizing chores is the Charter School Advisory Board, consisting of 11 voting members appointed by the governor and legislative leadership.

The CSAB is delving into complex issues in addition to reviewing the current applications. So, how do these groups handle the workload? Do they limit the flow of new charters based upon the staff at the OCS and the advisory board’s ability to read all the applications? Do they seek necessary resources from the state board of education to do the job, providing a fair review of all applications?

Capacity and the desire of the state to provide high quality schools are critical. Suggestion: we should consider all applications based upon predictability of success, including community charters, replications, distance and blended learning providers, and those models offered by EMOs and CMOs.

The last leg of this three legged stool supporting the charter movement is parental demand.

That leg of the stool is strong and will only weaken as traditional public schools begin to better satisfy parents in our state. After all, the charter movement is not about the students in charter schools. It’s about all the rest.

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