North Carolina’s charter surge: Attendance has doubled in the last 5 years

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Invest Collegiate: Transform charter school uses rides on its indoor curlicue metal slide as a reward for students who excel on tests or demonstrate leadership and citizenship.

While North Carolina’s traditional public schools lost students this school year, charter school enrollment has more than doubled since the state lifted a 100-school cap in 2011.

State tallies show 168 charter schools had 91,815 students in the first month of this school year, compared with 45,215 in 100 schools five years earlier.

In the past year, charter schools gained 9,630 students while district schools lost about 3,400, the average daily membership reports show. Seventy-five of the state’s 115 districts reported fewer students this year than last year.

“Basically the growth in the state is being absorbed by charter schools and home schooling,” said Alexis Schauss, the state’s director of school business.

91,815 students in N.C. charter schools this year

9,630 increase in one year

46,600 increase in last five years

Charter schools, which are independent public schools that report to nonprofit boards, still account for only 6 percent of North Carolina’s 1.5 million K-12 students. But their role in public education is growing even faster than their numbers, as state and federal officials show increasing enthusiasm for offering families alternatives to traditional public schools.

Students around the Charlotte region return to school at a time when magnets, charter schools, vouchers for private schools and a growing home-school movement offer options.

North Carolina officials continue to wrestle with the best way to expand successful charter schools while closing or improving those that get into trouble. This week the state Board of Education is scheduled to discuss several charter school issues, from a new takeover process that will be tested with Charlotte’s Community Charter School to the annual data report required by the General Assembly.

Schauss says state officials actually projected an even bigger loss for school districts based on recent trends. Not only are new schools opening at a rapid clip, but many are starting with bigger enrollment than the early schools did. Meanwhile, successful existing charter schools are expanding.

The state recently approved two online charter schools that enroll students from around the state. Those schools reported a combined enrollment of almost 3,500 students this year.

1.4 million students in N.C. school districts this year

-3,407 change in one year

9,827 growth in last five years

Urban centers such as Charlotte and Raleigh have proven attractive to charter schools but have seen enough overall growth to absorb the shift. Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg school districts were among 29 in North Carolina that grew this year; their combined growth (about 2,700 in Wake and 1,100 in CMS) accounted for more than half the total increase among the growing districts.

Meanwhile, districts showing drops this year include several in the Charlotte region, such as Union County (down 434), Rowan-Salisbury (down 383) and Iredell-Statesville (down 306). Durham County, which has also seen heavy charter growth, saw its ranks decline by 343 students.

The charter boom, which has been particularly intense in the Charlotte region, creates a new environment for families, educators and policymakers. Students have a menu of new options, including the ability to cross county lines for charter schools. Officials in Wake and CMS have increased their own themed schools and other options in an attempt to compete with charters.

Both districts have also complained that a strong charter presence complicates district planning. Because charter schools don’t have a specific geographic zone, it’s impossible to predict where the students will come from. At any point, families who aren’t satisfied can leave charter schools and return to the districts. Charlotte has seen a handful of charter-school closings that have forced students to relocate during a school year.

Charter school proponents counter that the independent schools save taxpayers money, especially in growing districts where counties must pay to build new district schools. Charter schools get no government money for buildings; instead, they must cover facility costs through grants, donations or the operating budget.

According to the draft report being presented to the state Board of Education on Wednesday, charter schools serve significantly fewer low-income students than district schools, with 30 percent of all charter students and 50 percent of all district students classified as economically disadvantaged last year.

However, the report notes that a solid comparison is hard to generate. Some charter schools don’t participate in the federal lunch program that subsidizes meals for poor students, and participation in the program is traditionally used as the gauge of poverty. The report notes that some charter schools’ numbers may under-represent family poverty. Meanwhile, districts such as CMS and Guilford participate in a program that provides free meals to all students in high-poverty schools, which also skews those numbers.

Statewide, charter schools had more white students (57.1 percent vs. 49.5 percent) and fewer Hispanic students (8.4 percent vs. 16.6 percent) than school districts, according to the report. Black and Asian enrollment was nearly identical, at 26 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

Academically, charter schools were skewed toward the extremes, with a higher percentage earning both A’s and F’s based on students exam performance. The report notes that 38 percent of charter schools had at least 60 percent of students earning college-ready scores on state exams, compared with 5 percent of district schools hitting that mark.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms