Report tallies the cost of NC charter boom to suburban Charlotte school districts

Teacher's aide Elizabeth Young (left) asks a question of her students during an English lesson at the Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham. A new study says that charter schools are costing the Durham Public Schools between $500 and $700 per student.
Teacher's aide Elizabeth Young (left) asks a question of her students during an English lesson at the Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham. A new study says that charter schools are costing the Durham Public Schools between $500 and $700 per student. News & Observer file photo

Charter schools in North Carolina are taking money away from traditional public schools and reducing what services those school districts can provide to their students, according to a new research paper co-authored by a Duke University professor.

The paper, released in December, found that charter schools had “significant negative fiscal” effects on Union, Iredell and Cabarrus county school systems and three other North Carolina districts studied in the report. In the case of Durham, the only urban district in the study, the researchers found that charter schools are creating a fiscal burden for the district between $500 and $700 per student.

Duke University professor Helen Ladd

“(North Carolina) is imposing additional costs on local districts by authorizing charter schools,” Duke University professor Helen Ladd and University of Rochester professor John Singleton wrote in the study. “As we have shown, the negative financial impacts are large, particularly in the urban and densely populated district of Durham but also in some of the non-urban counties as well.

“Moreover, the continued expansion of charter schools in non-urban districts is likely to impose an increasingly large fiscal burden over time.”

Charter school supporters say the new study is divisive at a time when both branches of public schools should be trying to work together.

“These types of studies drive a wedge between districts and charters, further discouraging them from collaborating with one another,” said Terry Stoops, vice president for research for the John Locke Foundation. “If we’re going to collaborate, we have to stop pointing fingers at each other about who is getting what.”

Stoops is handling communications for a new charter school near Fuquay-Varina that will be directed by his wife.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. There are 173 charter schools in the state. The number has gone up since state lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap in 2011.

The Charlotte region has seen more charter schools open since the cap was lifted than any part of the state. Forty charter schools currently serve Mecklenburg and surrounding counties, with a handful more slated to open in August.

“The outflow of students that this study examined is due to one thing: families not being satisfied with the schools that public school districts have assigned them to,” Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association For Public Charter Schools, said in a statement. “Here’s a simple solution: meet students’ needs by running better schools.”

Charter schools get money based on the number of students they have but don’t receive funding to build facilities. Supporters have talked about trying to increase funding for charter schools.

But critics of charters say they take needed money away from traditional public schools.

For the study, the authors wanted to examine urban and non-urban districts which still have costs they must pay for when students leave for charter schools. The authors picked six districts which have seen rapid enrollment growth among charter students: Buncombe, Cabarrus, Durham, Iredell-Statesville, Orange and Union counties.

Union County has three charter schools, Cabarrus County has four and Iredell has five. Because students can cross county lines to attend charter schools, residents have access to others in the region, including 27 in Mecklenburg.

The study found the greatest impact of charters was on Durham, where 15 percent of the county’s public school students attend charter schools. Under what Ladd called the most reasonable scenario, the study found that charter schools were requiring the Durham school system to reduce services for each public school student by between $500 and $700.

Next to Durham, Iredell has the largest share of its students in charter schools at 14 percent. The study put the impact on its traditional public schools at $62 to $225 per pupil.

Union has the lowest charter participation of the six districts studies, at 3 percent, with an economic impact of $93 to $126 per student. Cabarrus has 6 percent of its students enrolled, costing traditional public schools $74 to $140 per student.

Charter schools “may expand choice for some students while imposing costs on taxpayers and students that remain in district schools,” according to the study.

“The main takeaway is that there are some fiscal costs associated with these charters,” Ladd said in an interview. “Policymakers should probably pay attention to that so when local school board members complain, they have legitimate reasons to complain.”

Ladd also co-authored a study in 2015 that found that North Carolina charter schools were helping to increase school segregation. That study was also criticized by charter school supporters.

Dillingham called it unfair to say that charter schools are a fiscal burden for Durham. She said Durham school officials can learn lessons from charter school operators who make do with less because charters don’t get funding for facilities or food.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui