Education

Charlotte’s charter school surge slows as state tightens scrutiny for 2017

UpROAR Leadership Academy was one of only three new charter schools in the Charlotte area that won state approval Thursday.
UpROAR Leadership Academy was one of only three new charter schools in the Charlotte area that won state approval Thursday.

The surge of charter schools in Charlotte and across North Carolina will slow in 2017, as the state Board of Education Thursday rejected several applications that members feared could end in school failure.

The result: Only eight of 28 charter school applications for 2017-18 won approval, including two in Mecklenburg County and one just across the river in Gaston County. That will bring about 1,200 new seats for students in the Charlotte region, fewer than the area has seen in recent years.

If all goes as planned in the coming year, as the approved schools find buildings, hire staff and recruit students, Charlotte will have a new “quasi-military” school and a westside replica of the the highly regarded Sugar Creek Charter School. And the Charter Schools USA chain, which already operates several schools in the region, will add one in the Belmont-Mount Holly area.

I think there is a connection between weak applications and schools struggling in the first couple of years.

Dave Machado, director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools

In a break with tradition, the Board of Education denied five applications that had won approval from the Charter School Advisory Board, which reviewed applications and interviewed board members earlier this year. Members of both boards voiced concern about schools that have opened and quickly failed, including three Charlotte schools that collapsed under academic and financial problems in their first year.

Alex Quigley of Durham, a charter school leader who chairs the advisory board, said he wasn’t sold on some of the applications that won the endorsement of his board. He said he believes it’s “very important that we have a high bar” in exchange for risking millions of dollars of public money.

This appears to be a major change in state policy.

Lee Teague, executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association

“This appears to be a major change in state policy,” said Lee Teague, executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association. He said if the Board of Education overrides the advisory board’s recommendations it should give applicants a hearing.

Since North Carolina lifted its 100-school cap in 2011, the state has seen a boom in charter schools, especially in the Charlotte region.

North Carolina will have 167 charter schools in 2016-17, including approximately 38 that serve Mecklenburg County students. Charter schools, which are public schools run by independent boards, can take students across county lines.

The Board of Education, which has final responsibility for deciding which charter boards will be entrusted with public money, approved without question the applications that won unanimous support from the advisory board. It rejected all that the advisory panel failed to endorse.

But several members, including Eric Davis of Charlotte, pressed for details on proposals that got split votes of support from the advisory group.

Those included Bonnie Cone Classical Academy, which planned to open in Charlotte’s University City area, and Ridgeview Charter School in Gaston County. Advisory board members who voted against those schools said the Bonnie Cone board gave weak and inconsistent answers in interviews, and the Ridgeview proposal had shortcomings in the budget and education plan.

Davis, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member who abstained from voting on the Cone application, said during Wednesday’s discussion that he liked the classical theme. “The question is,” he said, “can this team deliver?”

Some of the schools that failed soon after opening had been approved despite concerns of some who reviewed their applications. On Wednesday the Board of Education asked Dave Machado, a longtime charter school administrator who became state charter school director July 1, whether he shared concerns about approving borderline proposals.

“I think there is a connection between weak applications and schools struggling in the first couple of years,” Machado said.

Three of the original 28 applicants withdrew during the process, and 17 were ultimately rejected. Eight of the rejected schools would have been in Mecklenburg or the surrounding counties.

Here are the three local plans that won approval:

Mecklenburg

▪ Movement School, which will be modeled on Sugar Creek Charter School in north Charlotte. Movement expects to serve minority and low-income communities in west Charlotte and open with about 300 K-2 students, expanding to K-6.

▪ UpROAR Leadership Academy, a military school that will offer 725 more hours of instruction than traditional public schools. It will offer career and trade preparation for at-risk youth and expects to open with 250 students in grades 5-8, expanding to 5-12.

Gaston

▪ Montcross Charter Academy, an addition to the Charter Schools USA chain that plans to open in the Belmont-Mount Holly area with about 660 K-6 students, later expanding to K-8.

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

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