Living Here Guide

Schools: Count on choice, competition

Choice and competition are booming when it comes to K-12 education in the Charlotte area.

There are new taxpayer-funded scholarships to send low-income kids to private schools, a surge of charter schools and a school district that’s trying to tailor academic options to the needs of students and communities.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, a countywide district with roughly 145,000 students, serves more than three-quarters of the county’s school-age children. Traditional public schools in surrounding counties also dominate their educational scene.

But lines are blurring and options growing. The region now has more than 30 charter schools – tuition-free public schools run by independent boards which can enroll students across county lines. Many of those just opened in 2014, as North Carolina expands its charter program.

The state’s new Opportunity Scholarship program offers public money to subsidize tuition for low-income families. The area boasts a large menu of religious and independent private schools.

CMS (that’s local shorthand for the cumbersome school district name), which has long offered a mix of magnets and neighborhood schools, keeps adding new options to keep up. There are small high schools on college campuses, new programs emphasizing science and technology, programs that specialize in world culture and foreign languages and a handful of schools trying year-round calendars.

All this change comes with controversy. Don’t be surprised to find yourself in a heated discussion about testing, Common Core standards, the role of private business in public education or the best ways to help disadvantaged kids succeed.

You won’t encounter teacher strikes; North Carolina doesn’t allow collective bargaining. But you may find educators, families and community leaders holding signs and speaking up for better teacher pay and working conditions.

Unlike some big-city districts, CMS includes a mix of races, incomes and urban and suburban residents. But school demographics vary dramatically, and the increased competition has invigorated debate about the best ways to keep families engaged with public schools.

This area has home-schooling associations and charter school advocates, PTAs and PTOs, groups supporting CMS and groups lobbying for choice. Whatever your choices and views, you’ll probably be able to connect with like-minded people who care about education.