One area where the new majority in the General Assembly is likely to take quick action is charter schools. Established in 1996, charter schools were intended to allow schools the opportunity to offer not only new instructional methodologies and innovative curricula but also offer expanded educational opportunities for students and parents.
North Carolina has limited the number of charter schools in North Carolina to 100. Since the inception of the state charter school law, the State Board of Education has approved 143 charters and closed 33 charters schools and allowed 10 charter schools to relinquish their charter.
As the popularity of charter schools has increased and enrollment has grown, a number of bills have been introduced to raise or lift the current cap on charter schools. However, none of those bills has had the support of the majority party, until now.
SHOULD NORTH CAROLINA LIFT THE CAP ON CHARTER SCHOOLS?
Does North Carolina need more than 100 charter schools? There are approximately 38,000 students enrolled in charters schools and 10,000 more students on waiting lists. Clearly, the demand for charter schools exceeds supply.
- Why 100 schools? Why does North Carolina limit the supply of charter schools to 100? There is nothing scientific about the number 100. In the original legislation, estimates for the number of charter schools were higher. However, the final number 100 was a compromised figure that represented one school for every county. Today, there are counties that have several charter schools and there are counties that have none at all, rendering the 100 figure completely meaningless.
- Commission Recommendation. In 2008, after a period of extensive study and evaluation, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Charter Schools recommended raising the cap. The Legislature has failed to act on that recommendation or many others.
- Less Costly. Charter schools are less expensive to operate than traditional public schools. Savings estimates range anywhere from 12 cents to 30 cents on the dollar less than traditional public schools.
- Expand Choice. Charter schools allow schools to experiment with innovative curricula and educational management strategies. They provide parents and students a clear educational choice.
- Competition. Charter schools help all schools by injecting an element of competition into the local educational market.
RESPONDING TO CRITICS
Criticism: Charter school critics claim the schools “cherry-pick” the best students and do not accept children with special needs.
Answer: Public charter schools are required by law to provide equal access including enrolling students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency. Do charter schools cherry-pick students? By law, charters are required to reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the general population of the surrounding Local Education Agency (LEA).
Criticism: Charter schools do not have to provide food service or transportation for students, nor license teachers in the same way as traditional public schools. Shouldn’t charter schools be forced to provide these services like other public schools?
Answer: Charter schools were specifically designed to provide schools with administrative flexibility and autonomy. Attempts to micromanage services, admissions and teacher qualifications, strike at the very nature of charter schools. Regulating these areas takes away the freedom and flexibility that were meant to define charter schools.
The authority to hire is a key component of charter schools. Schools are allowed to hire teachers that are qualified but not necessarily immediately credentialed. Current law requires that at least 75 percent of the teachers in elementary charter schools and at least 50 percent of teachers in charter high schools are state certified.
Criticism: Schools should be required to offer cafeteria services. The decision not to do so usually suppresses enrollment of lower income and minority populations.
Answer. The decision not to offer school lunch is usually based on economics. Offering cafeteria services for many schools is a losing proposition. Charter schools are required by law to broadly reflect racial composition of the surrounding community. In addition, some charter schools, because of location or curricular focus, already have higher percentages of minority students.
Charter schools are an important component for bringing true reform to our public schools. While North Carolina students and parents have responded positively to charter schools, lifting the cap is not likely to end the current discussion. Lawmakers will need to address other significant issues. These include:
Should the State Board of Education continue to be the main authority for authorizing charters?
Opponents of the current plan cite the competitive pressures that exist between charter schools and Local Education Authorities (LEAs) for resources as reason for the need for additional authorizers. County Commissioners or LEAs have been mentioned as entities to authorize charter schools.
Funding: Operating Expenses
Recent budget legislation provides public schools the ability to manipulate average operating costs thereby allowing LEAs to control the amount of funds they are legally required to dispense to charter schools. In addition the legislation lengthened the time LEAs can take to repay charters for owed expenses.
These actions have added to the budget difficulties of charter schools.
Funding: Capital Funding
Charter schools receive no public funding from the state for constructing facilities. Charter schools are restricted to using state funds for leasing facilities or making loan payments. Money intended for those uses must come from the school’s general operating fund. These restrictions have created numerous facility challenges.
The North Carolina Institute on Constitutional Law is currently litigating a case (Sugar Creek Inc. et al vs. State of North Carolina et al) that would provide charter schools the same right to access capital funds that traditional public schools enjoy.