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Charter growth in Mecklenburg expected to outstrip CMS 5 to 1

Charter schools like Charlotte’s Invest Collegiate are expected to account for most of Mecklenburg’s enrollment growth next year.
Charter schools like Charlotte’s Invest Collegiate are expected to account for most of Mecklenburg’s enrollment growth next year. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County’s public school enrollment is expected to grow by roughly 3,200 students next year. And for every one that chooses Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the district expects five to pick charter schools.

That nugget, tucked into a budget report at Tuesday’s school board meeting, was overshadowed by more dramatic and controversial items. But charter school growth hovers over all the big CMS decisions from student assignment to school construction.

For instance, many board members speak passionately about the need to make courageous – and controversial – decisions to improve the lot of students in low-performing schools. But they’re well aware that the families with clout, many of whom are packing board meetings, have other options.

And as the board prepares to seek hundreds of millions of dollars to build new schools from county commissioners, who can be a skeptical lot to start with, CMS has to forecast growth and flight patterns and craft strategies to make the district competitive. As charter advocates often note, those schools get no public money for buildings.

I’ve been reporting on the charter surge in the Charlotte region since the state lifted the 100-school cap in 2011, but the latest projections drive the message home: The shift is shaping the broader public education scene.

CMS remains the biggest player, serving about 77 percent of Mecklenburg’s students (charter, private and home schools split the rest). But when 2015-16 enrollment data came in last fall, CMS fell far short of projections. Total growth was about 3,200, with charters getting three of those students for every one in CMS.

The CMS growth was driven by Hispanic enrollment, up by 1,650 students this year. If not for that surge, a district that had been adding 3,000 to 5,000 students a year before the recession would have seen its first enrollment drop in memory.

Now, during the season when families choose schools and districts plan budgets, CMS is making an educated guess that the district will gain about 500 students next year while charters will add almost 2,700. For starters, that means CMS expects to pass along about $45 million in county money to the charter schools serving Mecklenburg students, compared with $37 million this year.

In the longer term, that means a CMS construction plan where some of the top priorities are schools serving the fast-growing Hispanic population, whether that’s Collinswood Language Academy, a K-8 Spanish-English magnet that’s 62 percent Latino, or a new elementary school in east Charlotte.

CMS is also increasing its combined elementary-middle schools, a configuration that’s popular among charter schools but was, until recently, rare in CMS. And the construction plan includes schools designed to offer suburban families enticing options, whether that’s language magnets in the north and south or a $98 million high school for south suburban neighborhoods.

Charter schools aren’t just competing for Mecklenburg’s most affluent and successful students. Several are located in low-income neighborhoods and offering alternatives for students who struggle in traditional schools.

Charter growth poses a challenge to state officials, who support expansion but must figure out how to manage it.

The state’s Charter School Advisory Board, which helps decide which independent boards qualify for public education money, has been debating how high to set the bar for new approvals, according to Lindsay Wagner, a reporter for the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. And two Charlotte charter schools that serve disadvantaged, low-performing students are challenging a state Board of Education vote to stop their funding at the end of this school year.

Meanwhile, every August sees new charter schools opening in Charlotte, while longstanding schools expand to accommodate demand.

To some, increased competition is a sign of eroding support for public education. In addition to approving more charter schools, North Carolina has started a small but growing voucher program to help low-income families shift their children from public to private schools. This year, 2,522 students, including 237 from Mecklenburg County, are getting the Opportunity Scholarships.

As CMS enrollment shifts, political support may do the same. With anxiety high about student assignment, south suburban residents have mobilized by the hundreds, and some have revived talk about splitting the county into smaller school districts.

Meanwhile, school board member Ruby Jones spoke Tuesday about the difficulty of getting Hispanic families, whom she described as “key to the future of this district,” to simply attend a student assignment discussion.

“They feel fear. It’s palpable,” she said. “They looked at me with distrust because they were afraid that I might be somehow involved in trying to deport them.”

But for others, charter school competition can be a plus for districts such as CMS.

Lee Teague, a former Mecklenburg County resident recently named executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, wrote an opinion piece that ran in the Winston-Salem Journal this week, calling for school districts and charter leaders to unite around common goals.

“Improving education is a goal we all share. Most studies show giving parents choices – like charters or magnet schools – help achieve that goal. Healthy competition means more choices,” Teague wrote. “But conventional school leaders need to see charters as allies toward a common goal – rather than unfair competitors – for the competition to be healthy.”

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

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