The State Board of Education is being asked to allow 11 charter schools to open next year, including three in Charlotte, even as the state and Mecklenburg County fell short of 2014 charter school enrollment projections.
North Carolina has seen rapid growth in charter schools during the past two years. The Charlotte region has seen some of the biggest successes and most traumatic failures.
Charters opened at a swift pace after the state legislature broke the cap of 100 in 2011, saying there was growing demand for the schools. Charters are public schools that operate under an independent board and typically offer smaller class sizes and special programs.
The State Board approved 23 charters to open in 2013, and another 26 for 2014. However, some never got started or shut down quickly because of low enrollment.
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Mecklenburg and surrounding counties boast some of the earliest and most popular charters. But in the past two years, two Charlotte schools closed during their first year because of low enrollment and other problems.
Only one of the nine charters that opened in the Charlotte region this year met enrollment projections, and the total enrollment for the nine new schools was only about half of what was projected. Two others approved for 2014 openings delayed a year.
In other urban counties, such as Wake and Durham, success has varied. Some new schools had more students in the first month than they anticipated, while others came in below target. But both counties have fewer charters than Mecklenburg’s 22. Of the state’s 148 charters, 19 are in Wake and 11 in Durham County. And of the 11 new charters up for State Board approval next month, two are in Durham, one is in Wake, and one is in nearby Franklin County.
Eddie Goodall, executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, an industry group that supports charters and advocates for them, rejected the idea that any region of the state has a charter-school surplus. “Not even close,” he said.
A signal that an area may have enough charters is “when parents quit demanding them,” Goodall said, and that hasn’t happened yet.
Much at stake
The tumult in Charlotte means state and local officials, as well as parents, taxpayers and advocates, are watching the coming year closely.
In 2013-14, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools underestimated charter enrollment and fell short of its own projections. This year the opposite happened, and the district found itself with thousands more students than anticipated.
Compounding the uncertainty is the fact that many parents who aren’t happy with their neighborhood school apply for several charters and CMS magnet schools, both of which use lotteries to place students. That can lead to inflated waiting lists and students who don’t show up in August (unlike private schools, charters and magnets require no payments).
Statewide, about 67,700 students were enrolled in charter schools for this school year. While that’s up from about 58,000 students last year, first-month enrollments this year were about 9,000 students short of the state’s projections, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction.
Accurate projections are important because schools receive public money based on how many students attend, and schools use the projections to plan their spending.
The state sends its first funding allocation – based on the projection – a month or so before the school opens. Later allocations are adjusted downward if there are fewer students.
Things don’t necessarily settle down when school starts. StudentFirst Academy closed in April 2014, eight months after opening, and Concrete Roses STEM Academy closed in September after only four weeks. Both times, students and their parents had to scramble to find new schools – and questions arose about whether the public start-up money had been wisely invested.
New applicants know they’re launching in a challenging environment.
“We learned the lessons of some of our predecessors,” says Mary Moss Brown, founder of Charlotte Lab School, which hopes to open with 280 K-4 students in uptown Charlotte.
Brown says her board began marketing the school, which promises that students will learn foreign languages and be engaged with uptown partners, in September. The board is also budgeting for transportation, which charter schools aren’t required to provide. Brown said failure to offer busing has dampened enrollment for some schools and created the perception that charters don’t serve all students.
Katy Ridnouer, founder of Veritas Community School, said she approached CMS about leasing three locations for her charter elementary school. The district, which had leased a vacant school to StudentFirst for $50 a month, said no, Ridnouer said.
While the state and county provide operating money for charter schools, the boards that run those schools get no public money for buildings.
“That’s the biggest hurdle that charter schools face, because the market is expensive here,” said Ridnouer, who expects to lease a building on Shamrock Drive in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood. She hopes to open with 200 K-3 students in a school that focuses on academics, healthy living and a “peaceful classroom” program on conflict resolution.
Goodall agrees that finding space has been an obstacle, especially in Charlotte: “Schools don’t have a place – they don’t know where they’re going to be. People don’t apply,” he said.
Joel Medley, director of the state Office of Charter Schools, said there’s no standard answer why new schools don’t meet their enrollment projections. And there’s no research to show when an area hits its optimum number of charter school seats, he said.
Ridnouer and Brown both say partnerships and support are vital. Veritas plans to join TeamCFA, a charter school network created by the Colorado-based Challenge Foundation. Charlotte Lab School has received $100,000 in start-up money from Next Generation Learning Challenges and $200,000 from the Charter School Growth Fund. Both are national foundations that help launch new schools.
The founder of the third Charlotte school up for final approval in January, Queen City STEM, could not be reached Friday.
The Jan. 8 vote by the state Board of Education will give new charters the go-ahead to sign leases and begin taking applications. CMS is taking applications for 2015 magnet seats through Jan. 26, while existing charters and private schools will also be recruiting as the new year begins.
CMS leaders have said they don’t object to high-quality charter schools. In fact, the school board’s 2015 wish list for legislators includes permission for the district to open its own charter schools, which could give CMS leeway to create such academic options as an all-boys middle school.
The board has also asked lawmakers to set an April 1 deadline for parents to select a public school – whether that’s traditional, magnet or charter – for the coming school year. The goal is to reduce uncertainty during spring and summer planning.
Though Mecklenburg charters have been off-target, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey said enrollment projections are generally on track.
Starting a school is hard, said Cobey. “It’s about as difficult a chore that you can get involved in,” he said. And there’s no telling why enrollment projections in Charlotte charters were off.
“Is that driven by more supply than demand, or driven by more options in their traditional system?” he asked. “I don’t know how to look at that.”