North Carolina’s growing charter-school movement could add 14 new schools in 2021

More than a dozen new charter schools want state approval to open in 2021, including five in Mecklenburg County and one each in Wake, Durham and Chatham counties.

Fourteen new charter applicants met Monday’s deadline to apply to open for the 2021-22 school year, according to information posted on the state Office of Charter Schools’ website. This comes after five charter schools met a July 29 deadline to request fast-track permission to open for the 2020-21 school year.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow, such as providing school meals and bus service. Supporters say charter schools provide families with more education options. But critics say charters siphon money away from traditional public schools and increase school segregation.

There are 198 charter schools open in North Carolina. Another 12 charter schools recently received state approval to open in 2020. There are also some charter schools that were approved to open this year that are waiting until 2020 due to issues such as not having a facility ready.

The number of charter schools has nearly doubled since the 100-school limit was lifted by state lawmakers in 2011. Some Democratic lawmakers unsuccessfully tried this year to get the Republican majority to put a new cap on charter school growth.

Five of the new charter schools that want to open in 2021 would be managed by Torchlight Academy Schools, which runs three charter schools, including one by the same name in Raleigh. Torchlight’s proposed new schools are across the state, including one in Wake and two in Mecklenburg counties.

Another for-profit charter school management company, National Heritage Academies, wants to open a new school in Durham and another in Guilford County.

“When you look at NHA and some of the other operators in our state, they’ve been here for a number of years so it may seem an anomaly that we have so many applications going forward,” said Don McQueen, president of Torchlight Academy Schools.

“We still have a lot of catching up to do for a home-grown North Carolina infused methodology that appears to be successful. We still have to figure it out.”

The applications will be reviewed by the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board, which will recommend which ones should be approved by the State Board of Education.

The new applications come as the state board is scheduled to vote next week on a request by Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School in Rowan County to end its relationship with Torchlight. In its request, the school’s leadership says it’s not pleased with the services being provided by Torchlight.

McQueen says he realizes that the Essie Mae situation could impact the new applications. He said he expects the Charter Schools Advisory Board to scrutinize every component of the applications.

“They’re very very reasonable with how they address their concerns with charter schools,” McQueen said of the advisory board.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.