Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte are home to many charter schools, but a new national report says those three areas are filled with places where lower-income families don't have access to these non-traditional public schools.
A new report from the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute says there are hundreds of "charter school deserts" in the U.S., which it defines as three or more contiguous census tracts that have poverty rates greater than 20 percent but that have no charter schools.
The report, released Thursday, found 14 charter school deserts in North Carolina, including nine in the Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte metro areas. The other five are in rural areas.
"We think there are plenty of cities that are saturated with charters, but when you can zoom in at the census track level, you can see census tracks that are pretty poor and they have no other option than their traditional school," said Amber Northern, senior vice president for research at the Fordham Institute.
The areas with charter school deserts can be viewed by going to https://edexcellence.net/charter-school-deserts.
But the report is being met with skepticism by some North Carolina educators.
Cheryl Turner, a longtime Charlotte charter school leader and member of the North Carolina Charter Schools Advisory Board, burst out laughing when told the study had labeled large parts of Charlotte as charter school deserts.
There are 173 charter schools open in North Carolina this school year serving more than 100,000 students.
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. For instance, charter schools don't have to provide bus service or school meals, don't have to require that all their teachers be licensed and are exempt from the state's school calendar law.
But charter school leaders say their extra freedom also comes with more risks, such as the potential of being closed by the state. Between 1997 and 2017, 60 charter schools closed in North Carolina.
Charter school operators have flocked to the state's major metropolitan areas. More than a third of the state's charter schools are located in Durham, Mecklenburg and Wake counties, with more on the way.
The growth has been particularly frustrating for Wake County school leaders, who say that $5.5 million of the $58.9 million increase they may ask from county commissioners this year is because of increased charter school enrollment.
School districts pass along local money to charter schools based on the number of charter students who live in their district. Wake is projecting 1,535 more charter schools students this fall, only 363 less than the number of new students projected for the district.
"Local funding comes to our school system, and then we have to take that out and give it to the charter even if the charter doesn’t provide transportation, special ed services. etc," Wake school board member Lindsay Mahaffey said at the April 17 budget work session.
The 12,252 Wake charter school students account for 7 percent of the county's public school enrollment. That percentage is at 15 percent in Durham, where charter school enrollment has increased to around 6,400 students as the school district has been shrinking in size.
About 18,500 Mecklenburg students are enrolled in about three dozen charter schools in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. That accounts for about 10 percent of the public school students in the county.
"In some places, people are finding out what the balance should be between charter schools and traditional public schools," Northern said. "There’s a tipping point conversation going on.”
Despite the growing number of charter students, the Fordham report says there are charter school deserts in the Charlotte metro area, the western and eastern parts of the Durham metro area and the southwestern and eastern parts of the Raleigh metro area.
In Wake County, for instance, the report shows no charter schools in much of eastern Wake, Garner and southwest Raleigh. Northern said the report also shows that large parts of Durham and Charlotte are not oversaturated with charter schools.
"In Raleigh and Durham, there are plenty of poor census tracts that have no options other than their traditional public schools," Northern said..
Northern said that while people can anecdotally think an area is saturated with charter schools, you don't get the complete story until you look at the data at a more detailed level.
"We never had data at the census tract level so now we can zoom in and see that even in cities where we thought were quote unquote saturated, there’s plenty of room for charters," she said.
The report recommends steps such as opening more charter schools in the suburbs, where the authors say poor people are moving because they're being pushed out of the big cities.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Chair Mary McCray said Thursday she doesn't think Charlotte is a charter school desert. But she said North Carolina's charter school structure, in which the state authorizes schools and the charter's governing board seeks available space, doesn't allow for a targeted approach to neighborhoods in need.
McCray said in other states, school districts can authorize their own charter schools, allowing them to choose locations where traditional schools are struggling and neighborhoods need a boost. "If we were given the opportunity we could do things like that," McCray said.
Turner, the charter school leader from Charlotte, questioned how the Fordham report was produced.
The only part of town Turner said she might describe as a desert is east Charlotte, with a large international population. However, a charter school that has been approved to open there in 2019 will cater to Spanish-speaking students and families, she said.
State charter officials are much more concerned about opening schools in rural counties that have none than in saturating urban Census tracts, she said.
As for the Fordham labels, "they're working from a map," she said. "They're not working from real people."