Charter schools keep expanding in North Carolina

When the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Charter School Act in 1996, it authorized establishing a system of charter schools.
Traditional public school enrollment saw a drop during the pandemic, while charter school enrollment saw an increase.
Published: Aug. 3, 2022 at 7:04 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AXIOS) - A new school year is near, and along with it comes the 25th anniversary of North Carolina charter schools.

State of play: Charter schools — publicly funded schools that are independently run — continue to expand across the state, with 207 charter schools statewide heading into the upcoming school year. Mecklenburg County has 34.

  • Traditional public school enrollment saw a drop during the pandemic, while charter school enrollment saw an increase.

Context: When the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Charter School Act in 1996, it authorized establishing a system of charter schools. However, it included a cap of 100 schools, which was removed in 2011. Charter schools were intended as schools of choice — an alternative to traditional public school education where innovation could thrive.

Why it matters: Charter schools have become increasingly polarizing in North Carolina and beyond. Critics argue they aren’t fulfilling their original purpose as innovation hubs and they undercut public education for all, but proponents say they provide more options for parents beyond the traditional public school setting.

  • The topic is more nuanced than a simple either-or, and it involves debates over how to provide equitable education for students from all backgrounds while millions of dollars shift away from the traditional public schools systems that were part of the country’s foundation for the last 25 years of the 20th century.

“I feel like a lot of the craftier proponents of charters have no problem kind of holding out Black and brown families and low income families as the mascot for supporting charters legislatively, while also doing everything in their power not to support those families in areas outside of education,” James Ford, executive director of the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED) and state board of education representative, told Axios.

By the numbers: 1,429,275 students were enrolled in traditional public schools in 2020-2021 compared to a record-high 130,286 in charter schools this past school year, which is 8.6% of the state’s total public school population.

  • Here’s a breakdown of student ethnicity for charter schools based on Oct. 1, 2021: 49.84% white, 26.38% Black, 12.67% Hispanic, 3.87% Asian, 6.34% two or more races and less than 1% each for Native American or Pacific Islander.
  • The numbers are fairly similar at public schools based on 2020-21 data: 45.5% white, 24.8% Black, 19.8% Hispanic, 3.8% Asian, 4.9% two or more races, 1.14% Native American and less than 1% Pacific Islander.
  • “When you discuss charters, it’s important to understand how folks of color in particular, Black folks are looking at charters,” Ford said. “Charters are actually pretty popular amongst Black and brown people.”

Between the lines: Ford described support for charter schools among communities of color and white communities as a “strange bedfellows situation,” because their reasons for supporting charters are not uniform.

  • “I don’t think folks are wrong when they say a lot of white communities support charters, not for the innovation as much as being able to kind of pick the population that they want their students to be around,” Ford said.
  • He added, communities of color tend to support charter schools because their traditional public school options are often “subpar.”

Zoom in: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hasn’t seen a rebound in enrollment since the pandemic. Enrollment for the three most recent school years at CMS was:

  • 2019-2020: 146,887
  • 2020-2021: 140,073
  • 2021-2022: 140,406

Enrollment, or average daily membership (ADM), helps determine how much funding the state allocates to school districts, as well as charter schools, and state funding for charter schools keeps increasing as enrollment continues to rise.

  • For instance, charter schools received $909,998,508 from the state for 2021-2022, which was an record-high 8.8% from the state. By comparison, charter schools received $16,559,947 (0.3%) in 1997-98.
  • Locally, dollars are distributed from the state to the county to CMS to charter schools. They’re what’s called pass through dollars.
  • Of note: Charter schools can use state funds for anything except buying a building, and they are only 80% publicly funded.

Mecklenburg County’s existing charter schools include eight that were founded before the state removed the 100-school cap in 2011, including two from the prior to 2000: Lake Norman Charter (1998) and Sugar Creek Charter (1999).

  • Newer additions include schools like Charlotte Lab School, which launched in 2015 and is currently K-11 and will be K-12 starting starting in 2023-2024, and Steele Creek Preparatory Academy, which kicked off in 2019 and is K-8.

Charlotte Lab School has more than 1,000 students across three campuses, two of which are in Uptown, with the middle and high school in South End.

  • Ricky Singh, head of Charlotte Lab’s Upper School, has spent nearly two decades in education across traditional public, private and in charter schools.
  • He told Axios the biggest difference in his experience has been charter schools allowing you to “write your own path.”
  • For instance, Charlotte Lab School collaborated with Asics and Social Status on a custom sneaker, which is set to drop in 2022. The experience took students through the process of creating a sneaker. The class was led by track and field Asics athlete Taliyah Brooks.

Across town, Matthew Ridenhour, the founding board chair of Steele Creek Prep and former Mecklenburg County Commissioner, told Axios a lot of families were looking for alternative learning opportunities amid the pandemic, including his own. His daughter attends Steele Creek Prep. They offered fully remote learning, a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, as well as fully in-person learning.

  • He added families have shown an increased interest in charter schools in recent years, “because folks are realizing that charter schools can offer them options that they may not be able to get in a traditional public school.”

By the numbers: Steele Creek Prep has 560 students, more than half of which are Black (62.1%), per Ridenhour, followed by:

  • 23.5% Hispanic, 4.1% white, 6.6% bi-racial, 3.5% Asian, 0.2% Native American

Yes, but: While parents are emerging from the pandemic with what feels like more choices than ever for where to send their kids to school, Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with the Education & Law Project, cautions the idea that choice is a substitute for adequacy.

“We know through we know through the Leandro case that just to meet the bare minimum of what’s required to provide a constitutional education or a sound basic education, we need to increase funding by 45% or so,” Nordstrom told Axios. “But that conversation doesn’t happen.”

Flashback: Underfunding of public schools in North Carolina led to the Leandro v. State of North Carolina case in 1994. Five low-income North Carolina school districts and families sued the state for allegedly failing to provide equal educational opportunities across the board.

  • North Carolina’s constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education” and that the state wasn’t providing that, per the 1997 state Supreme Court ruling on the case.
  • Then in 2004, the state Supreme Court ruled the state wasn’t doing enough to satisfy the 1997 ruling.

What’s next: The Leandro saga continues, with the case returning to the state Supreme Court on Aug. 31.

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