Feds give NC more than $36 million for charter schools. Can the state spend it all?

North Carolina will now have more than $36 million in federal funding to help increase enrollment in charter schools, particularly for children from low-income groups.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction announced Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Education is awarding the state an additional $10 million to support a statewide initiative to use charter schools to help meet the needs of educationally disadvantaged students. This comes on top of the $26.6 million federal grant awarded last year to increase the number of charter schools across the state.

It’s a financial windfall that has caused charter school leaders across the state to apply for a share of the federal funding.

“The reality is — let the elephant out here — that we’re going to have difficulty spending this money perhaps,” Joseph Maimone, a member of the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board, said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We’ve got to really think about how difficult it’s going to be to use up the entire grant.”

State officials say they’re confident that they can spend the $36.6 million.

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. Charter schools have a lower percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches than traditional public schools.

There are 198 charter schools open in North Carolina serving more than 100,000 students. Enrollment has surged since state lawmakers voted in 2011 to eliminate the state limit of 100 charter schools.

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.

One of the goals of the grant is to help low-income students to attend high-quality charter schools. Several charter schools have modified their admissions rules to give selection priority to low-income students as a way to improve their chances of winning grant money.

State education officials want to make more charter schools eligible to receive the grant money that they can use to expand their enrollment or to replicate their programs.

Currently, charter schools must have least a “B” school performance grade and met or exceeded growth for at least two of the past three years to be eligible. That covers 59 schools.

The state could make another 23 schools eligible by including those who have at least a “B” grade and didn’t meet growth and schools with a “C” grade that met or exceeded growth.

“These additional funds will further advance our efforts to ensure equitable access to outstanding public charter schools for all students,” Alex Quigley, chairman of the Charter Schools Advisory Board, said in a press release.

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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.