Politics & Government

NC approves 10 new charter schools, but holds off on 2 others after Wake objects

Ten new North Carolina charter schools got state approval Thursday, but two applications were put on hold because of concerns raised by the Wake County school system and some PTA groups who say the area has too many charters.

The State Board of Education approved the new charter schools to open in 2020, including three in Wake County. But the state board voted to have an advisory board take a second look at North Raleigh Charter Academy and Wake Preparatory Academy because of the concerns raised by district leaders and parent groups.

“I want to reiterate to the folks listening that we received a copious amount of information about several of the applications,” state board member Amy White said before the vote. “I know my board members and I know they read each of those emails or those pieces of communication thoroughly. We also had some communication from a local school system.”

White said that Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore, Wake school board chairman Jim Martin and other school board members had voiced their concerns to her. White, a former Wake school board member, said that the concerns should have been voiced earlier when the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board was deciding whether to recommend approval of the schools.

The advisory board will review both applications on Monday and send them back to the state board, which under state law has to make a decision by August.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a member of the state board, complained about the “stall tactics” he said were being used by opponents of those two charters. He said the delay is “punishing” the applicants who were already recommended for approval by the advisory board.

“We’re punishing them because other people aren’t going through the proper procedures and process that they have to go through and that we’re requiring of them to do,” Forest said. “I just want to make sure that the charter community and everybody else that’s engaged in this feels like they’re being treated fairly through this process.”

Charter schools are taxpayer funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow. For instance, they’re not required to provide school bus service or serve school meals. They also have more flexibility in how they spend their money, don’t have to follow the school calendar law and don’t need all their teachers to be licensed.

The number of charter schools has shot up statewide since the Republican-led state legislature voted in 2011 to lift a previous cap of 100 charters. Between the new charters opening this fall and those scheduled to open in 2020, the state will have more than 200 charter schools by next year.

Enrollment growth in charter schools has exceeded the Wake County school system’s growth for three of the past five years and is expected to do so again this fall. This school year, charter schools added 1,324 more students from Wake County, while the school district grew by 42 students.

Some Democratic state lawmakers unsuccessfully tried this year to put a moratorium on charter expansion.

After the Charter Schools Advisory Board recommended five new charter schools for Wake County, some PTA groups and school district leaders lobbied the state board not to approve them. They were countered by school-choice supporters who pointed to long waiting lists of more than 1,000 students apiece at several northern Wake charter schools.

During Wednesday’s discussion, state board member JB Buxton noted that the advisory board votes for North Raleigh Charter and Wake Prep were not unanimous. Some advisory board members had questioned the ability of Charter Schools USA to successfully open two charter schools in Wake in the same year — North Raleigh Charter and Wendell Falls Charter Academy.

Some advisory board members also had questioned how Wake Prep would be managed by a charter school operator who made millions of dollars building, selling and leasing properties to the schools he runs in Arizona.

Buxton also noted how Wake Prep has proposed major changes to its application, including sharply reducing how many students it would enroll in the first year.

The delay was cheered by groups fighting both charter schools.

“I’m happy to see that the State Board of Education is taking the WCPSS concerns seriously,” said Leslie Fielding-Russell, PTA president of Jones Dairy Elementary School in Wake Forest. “Whenever tax dollars are being used to support private businesses, they need to be careful and diligent prior to approval.”

But some have questioned the role of PTAs in fighting charter expansion.

“PTAs may be legally allowed to advocate,” Bob Luebke of the Civitas Institute wrote in a May 17 online post. “However, letting PTA members train parents of public school students to fight against charter schools still smells wrong to many people. “

The newly approved Wake charter schools are:

CE Academy, a K-8 Chinese language immersion school in the Cary area.

Doral Academy of North Carolina, a K-6 school in Garner.

Wendell Falls Charter Academy, a K-8 school in Wendell that would be managed by Charter Schools USA.

The other newly approved charters are Wilmington School of the Arts in New Hanover County, MINA Charter School of Lee County, Revolution Academy in Guilford County, Elaine Riddick Charter in Perquimans County, Robert J. Brown Leadership Academy in Guilford County, Achievement Charter Academy in Harnett County and Alamance Community School in Alamance County.

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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.