Charter School Growth
Family North Carolina MagazineSep/Oct 2007
by John L. Rustin and Catie Blair
Since 1997, when the first charter public school opened its doors in North Carolina, parents across the state have embraced this educational choice. One reason charter schools are so attractive to parents and students is that they provide opportunities not typically available within the traditional public school system.
Charters operate free from many of the requirements and restrictions faced by traditional public schools, and they are intended to be “incubators of innovation” that utilize a variety of educational and administrative approaches to accomplish the goal of educating North Carolina students. Run by a board of directors, charters are individually responsible for providing their own facilities, while an allotment based on student enrollment is provided by the state for daily operations.
In the 2006-07 school year, close to 29,000 students attended charter public schools in North Carolina, and a report by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) found that 5,200 children were on waiting lists for the 2007-08 school year.1 Franklin Academy Charter School in Wake County alone had more than 1,500 applications for its 101 open slots.2 The newly opened Pine Lake Preparatory received 2,500 applications for around 1,200 open slots.3
Despite their popularity, the growth of charter schools in North Carolina has been stifled by an arbitrary statewide limit of 100 charters set when the North Carolina General Assembly approved charter school legislation in 1996.4 This charter school cap has effectively limited the growth of the number of charter schools since 2002, and as a result, charters only become available when the State Board of Education revokes a charter or fails to renew a charter, or when an approved charter school relinquishes its charter.
Debate on the issue of raising or removing the charter school cap remains heated in North Carolina, as is evidenced by two recently released studies: one published in May 2007 by the John Locke Foundation extolling the benefits of charter schools and recommending that the North Carolina General Assembly remove the cap,5 and another released in June 2007 by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research (NCCPPR) urging state lawmakers to maintain the cap in order to further investigate the achievements of charter schools.6 Lawmakers themselves have not been silent on the issue, filing seven bills during the 2007 Legislative Session to either raise or remove the cap.7 Similar measures have been introduced consistently in prior sessions, but these efforts have also fallen short, and the 100-charter school cap remains in effect.
Skeptics of charter schools argue that maintaining the cap will allow for increased monitoring of academic quality and performance before authorizing expansion. The NCCPPR report cites four “weaknesses” in charter schools: “low academic performance, lack of racial balance as required by state law, lack of transfers of innovation to public schools, and sometimes questionable management and financial compliance.8 While the conclusions drawn by this study suffer from an “apples to oranges” comparison and an apparent misunderstanding of the legislative intent behind the establishment of charter schools, a closer analysis of these four points actually reveals the benefits that charter schools provide for students, parents and taxpayers across North Carolina.
The NCCPPR study first tracked academic performance in charter schools through scores from the ABC accountability testing program, graduation rates and additional ratings by DPI. While citing that a slight majority of charter schools fall into the three bottom categories of the ABC classification, the study fails to acknowledge that a number of charter schools are designed to serve specific populations of at-risk students, such as those who have dropped out of traditional public schools and those in areas of the state struggling with high poverty rates.
By design, charter schools have the flexibility to establish their own instructional focus and curriculum. As a result, charters vary widely in the substance and manner of the instruction they provide. For example, Cape Lookout Marine Science High School integrates learning with practical marine science applications; Charter Day School employs Direct Instruction methodology to teach a classical curriculum focused on the values of Western Civilization; Grandfather Academy provides special education to students estranged by emotional, sexual or other abuse; and Omuteko Gwamaziima provides a community-based education by teaching about African and African-American heritage.9 Some charters offer a more traditional core curriculum with a focus on arts, language or other specified criteria, while others offer more specialized approaches of learning to suit the needs of students who have not adequately benefited from the methods employed in traditional public schools.
Driven by the state’s ABCs evaluation program, many traditional public schools have felt it necessary to spend more instructional time attempting to raise student and school performance on the ABCs evaluation by providing instruction that is tailored to the ABCs test (often referred to as “teaching to the test”). Many charters do not have this luxury, because their focus and curriculum is unique and is not tailored specifically to preparing students for ABCs testing. As such, these schools may spend significantly less instructional time focusing on ABCs-related materials, a fact that may impact a charter school’s performance and evaluation under the ABCs program.
Evaluations based on other national tests, however, often highlight how well charter schools are actually performing. North Carolina charter schools have received national recognition for demonstrating excellence in education. Newsweek recently named Raleigh Charter High School as one of the “Best American High Schools,” ranking it 20th out of the 1,327 schools listed.10 This was Raleigh Charter’s third consecutive year to receive such recognition. In addition, the Center for Education Reform highlighted Gaston College Preparatory and Kinston Charter School among the 53 best charter schools in the nation for exemplifying high achievement and innovation.11 Despite the relatively short period of time charter schools have existed in North Carolina, several have developed a national reputation for excellence.
The NCCPPR also claims that charter schools “remain more racially segregated than traditional public schools as a whole.” While this observation may be factual, it ignores the intent behind the law regarding the student makeup of charter schools.
The 1996 law requires the student population of charter schools to “reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the general population residing within the local school administrative unit in which the school is located or the racial and ethnic composition of the special population that the school seeks to serve residing within the local school administrative unit in which the school is located."12 This provision was placed in the law primarily to prevent what was referred to as “white flight,” or the concern that middle and upper income white parents would establish charter schools, remove their children from traditional public schools, and place them in those charter schools. The evidence reveals that just the opposite has happened. According to the NCCPPR report, 37 charter schools in 2005-06 had a student population over 51 percent African American (19 were over 90 percent African American), and two additional charters were over 85 percent Native American.13
The laws governing charter schools direct that they, “increase learning opportunities for all students, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who are identified as at risk of academic failure or academically gifted."14 This, along with the portion of the law cited earlier, allows charter schools the flexibility to cater to “special populations” within specific communities around the state. Enrollment for charter schools, as mandated by state law, must be random and awarded on a lottery system given an excessive demand for available spots.
. Since charter school attendance is voluntary, students may neither be enrolled by force nor restricted from enrolling on the basis of their race.
Transfer of Innovations
Many charter schools have lived up to the expectation they would be “incubators of innovation.” The NCCPPR report acknowledges this, however, it finds little evidence of “the notion that charter schools serve as a testing ground for educational innovations that ultimately move into the public schools.” Charter schools cannot be held responsible for the failure of the State Board of Education, DPI, local school administrative units or individual traditional public schools to adopt the effective and innovative practices demonstrated by successful charter schools. The legislative purpose of the Charter School Act specifically states that charter schools are “to establish and maintain schools that operate independently of existing schools."15 The State Board of Education, DPI, and local school systemsnot charter schoolsshould be evaluated on their efforts to implement new, successful, and innovative learning techniques employed by successful charter schools into the broader public school system.
Management and Financial Compliance
Lastly, citing several charter school closures during the past 10 years due to insufficient enrollment or financial noncompliance, the NCCPPR attempts to document “sometimes questionable” mismanagement of charter school resources. Actually, this serves as evidence that the system is working, because in these specific cases the charter schools were closed, demonstrating an accountability mechanism that is operating effectively. To ensure greater financial stability, charter schools are required by law to undergo annual audits conducted by the State Board of Education.16 Charter schools also must plan for a full year before opening their doors. This system of accountability is designed to ensure that unsuccessful charter schools are eliminated, when appropriate, and successful charters are allowed to flourish.
Charter School Benefits
Charter schools provide a promising combination of the qualities of public and private education: they offer equal student admission and are tuition-free, they often specialize in unique and productive teaching methods, offer smaller class sizes and a variety of extra-curricular activities, and have high parental involvement. A study by Michael Fedewa entitled “The North Carolina Charter School Choice: Selection Factors and Parental Decision-Making” (2005) found that “over 75% of responding parents indicated that school size was an important reason when selecting a charter school."17 According to Terry Stoops, author of the John Locke Foundation’s report, in North Carolina the “median charter school has 243 fewer students than district schools with similar grade ranges,” supporting the belief that many students receive a high level of specialized attention and opportunity at charter public schools.18
As many areas of North Carolina continue to face high levels of population growth, the resulting overcrowding in public schools has school buildings, as well as individual classes, bursting at their seams. Although charter schools are similar to traditional public schools in that they receive “operating” money according to average student attendance, charters are individually responsible for financing all building, administrative and support needs, unlike their traditional public school counterparts. Accordingly, charter schools serve many students that would otherwise attend traditional public schools but with a fraction of the public funds. Allowing more qualified charter schools to open in North Carolina would go far in helping to ease the statewide multi-billion dollar school construction need.
In addition to the thousands of students statewide on waiting lists to attend charter schools, a July 2006 poll conducted by the John William Pope Civitas Institute “found that 59 percent of North Carolinians would like to see the cap of 100 charter schools removed as a way to give parents more choices and ease the state’s school construction burden."19
Finally, a fundamental fact often overlooked by opponents of charter schools is that the State Board of Education has the ultimate authority to approve charters and to take them away. The Board does not make these decisions lightly and on numerous occasions has wrestled with the decision to grant a charter or to revoke a charter. This appointed body has acknowledged that some of the lowest performing charter schools serve high-risk populations of students who have “fallen through the cracks” of traditional public schools and would not be in school but for the charter school they attend. On the other end of the spectrum, a number of North Carolina’s charter schools have received national recognition for their outstanding performance and innovative approach. A system that has been refined over a decade is now in place to ensure that charter school applicants are well qualified before they receive a charter and that they are meeting their goals and objectives once they open their doors. If the State Board of Education is performing its proper function of overseeing North Carolina’s public school systemincluding charter schoolsthere is no need for an arbitrary charter school cap.
John L. Rustin is Vice President and Director of Government Relations with the North Carolina Family Policy Council. Catie Blair served as an intern with the Council during the Spring and Summer of 2007.
- North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NC DPI), “Charter School Waiting List, 2007,” March 2007, as cited by Terry Stoops in “10 Years of Excellence: Why Charter Schools Are Good for North Carolina,” John Locke Foundation, May 2007.
- “Charter School Admission Becoming a Matter of Luck,” WRAL.com, February 12, 2007. http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/1201464/.
- Warmack, Lena, “2,500 Apply to New School,” Charlotte Observer, April 7, 2007.
- House Bill 955, ratified as Chapter 731 of the 1995 Session Laws, North Carolina General Assembly.
- Stoops, Terry, “10 Years of Excellence: Why Charter Schools Are Good for North Carolina,” John Locke Foundation, May 2007.
- Manuel, John, “Charter Schools Revisited: A Decade After Authorization, How Goes the North Carolina Experience?” North Carolina Insight, Volume 22, Nos. 2-3, May 2007.
- House Bill 30Raise Cap on Charter Schools; House Bill 252Remove Cap on the Number of Charter Schools; House Bill 416Remove Cap on the Number of Charter Schools; House Bill 1638Raise Cap on Charter Schools; Senate Bill 39Raise Cap on Charter Schools; Senate Bill 106Remove Cap on the Number of Charter Schools; Senate Bill 590Raise Cap on Number of Charter Schools; all introduced during the 2007 Session of the North Carolina General Assembly.
- “Research Center Says Keep Cap on Charter Schools Until Performance Improves,” News Release, North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, June 6, 2007.
- “The Top of the Class: The Complete List of the 1,200 Top U.S. Schools,” Newsweek Education, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12532678/site/newsweek/.
- “CER Salutes 53 of the Nation's Outstanding Charter Schools,” The Center for Education Reform, May 16, 2007. http://www.edreform.com/csoy/.
- N.C.G.S. §115C-238.29F(g)(5).
- Op. Cit., Manuel, “Table 3. N.C. Charter Schools That Are Majority African American (2005-06).” p.45.
- North Carolina General Statute § 115C-238.29A.
- North Carolina General Statute § 115C-238.29A.
- North Carolina General Statute § 115C-238.29F.
- Fedewa, Michael J, “The North Carolina Charter School Choice: Selection Factors and Parental Decision-Making,” Ph.D. Dissertation, North Carolina State University, 2005. p.52.
Copyright © 2007. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.