Eleven of the 71 North Carolina charter-school applicants that filed to open independent public schools in 2015 got the go-ahead from a screening board Tuesday, a significant drop from the previous year.
Thirty-one of the applications were for schools in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties, but only three of the 11 approved by the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board are in the Charlotte area. All applications for schools in Gaston, Cabarrus, Iredell and Union counties were rejected.
The state Board of Education has the final say on which private nonprofit boards will be authorized to get public money, but that board generally follows the advisory board’s recommendations.
The three Mecklenburg charters that got preliminary approval Tuesday – Charlotte Lab School, Queen City STEM and Veritas Community School – plan to serve almost 800 elementary and middle school students in 2014-15, eventually expanding to about 1,500 in combined enrollment.
“We really went out of our way to make sure that we were recommending schools that could take off and do well,” said advisory board member Cheryl Turner, director of Sugar Creek Charter School in Charlotte. “There are some very innovative schools coming.”
But Eddie Goodall, a Union County charter-school advocate and former state senator, says the board went too far in rejecting applications.
“We are all kind of in a daze at the proclivity for saying ‘no’ from this charter board,” said Goodall, president of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association.
The Charlotte area has seen a surge of charter schools since the state lifted its 100-school limit in 2011. Six opened this year, including one that closed in April amid reports of financial irregularities and academic shortcomings. Eleven more in or near Mecklenburg County have been approved to open in August, though one has since decided to wait until 2015.
After the 2014 schools were approved, the state legislature replaced the old advisory panel with a new group of advisers, most of them charter school officials from around the state. This is the first year that group reviewed applications.
Of the 71 applications filed in December, nine were rejected as incomplete. One, a pre-K through eighth-grade school that will be part of the Renaissance West Community Initiative in Charlotte, was withdrawn after organizers decided to work with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools instead of pursuing a charter.
The rest were screened by the 11-member advisory board, staff from the state Office of Charter Schools and consultants. Turner, who also served on the previous advisory panel, says the new group didn’t set out to slow the pace of charter-school expansion.
“I wouldn’t call this a precedent,” she said.
But she said the new board was stricter about winnowing out applications that have significant weaknesses.
StudentFirst Academy, a west Charlotte charter school whose April closing left about 300 students to find new schools, won approval last year even though the previous board rated several aspects of the application inadequate, Turner said.
This time, Turner said, “people that had significant ‘inadequates’ didn’t go anywhere.”
“We were all very aware of the StudentFirst problem,” Turner said.
Some local and state officials, including Gov. Pat McCrory, have voiced concerns about quality control for charter schools.
In addition, CMS officials and Mecklenburg County commissioners have raised questions about the requirement that charter schools get a per-pupil share of the county money approved for CMS, even though neither elected body has power to monitor quality or spending. The 2014-15 CMS budget seeks almost $403 million from the county and projects that almost $30 million of that will be passed to charter schools.
The three new schools have combined 2015-16 budgets of $5.6 million in public money, including $1.8 million from the county.
Goodall said the advisory board seemed intent on eliminating applicants that didn’t plan to offer busing or meals. State law gives charter schools that flexibility, but critics say that lets charters weed out low-income students.
Turner, whose school does provide busing and meals, said the board asked about transportation and meal plans but didn’t eliminate schools based on that.