- The Progressive Pulse - http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org -

Charter schools sail through approval process

The N.C. State Board of Education gave final approval for nine new charter schools to open this fall, the first schools that will open after a 100-school cap on charter schools was lifted last spring law by the N.C. General Assembly.

The schools, which are tuition-free, public schools that operate under the direction of a non-profit instead of a traditional school district, were approved Thursday under a one-time “fast-track” process being used only for this year.

The nine are:

All but the Bear Grass school were passed unanimously. Bear Grass received one dissenting vote.

Several of the school districts filed letters of objection with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, saying that the charter schools would divert too many students and too much funding away from existing schools.

Opposition to the proposed charter schools has been strongest in Durham, where 9 percent of the district’s student already attend charter schools, and in Chapel Hill, where the Howard and Lillian Lee charter school will open an elementary school this fall. The Howard and Lillian Lee school will focus on closing the achievement gap between minority and white students and be run by the for-profit management company National Heritage Academies, and no building or site for the school has been selected yet.

For Bear Grass Charter School, the Martin School superintendent wrote the N.C. State Board of Education that opening up the school would upset the successful efforts made by the school district in recent years to desegregate and find racial balance in its schools.

In Durham, the Research Triangle High School [1], started by the same people who started the Raleigh Charter High School [2], was questioned by Durham city, county and school leaders who worry that the new school would market itself to white, affluent families.

Pamela Blizzard, the director of the non-profit running the new charter, said the charter is reaching out to diverse populations and expects that 40 percent of the applicants are non-white. A lottery will be held at the end of the month to see what students are accepted at the school, she said.

Blizzard said she’s been surprised that her school proposal received so much push back from the Durham community.

“One of the challenges for us to being able to understand why our school is such a flashpoint,” Blizzard said. “We’re probably going to be one of the most diverse student (populations) in the state.”

But school officials in Durham were worried that Blizzard’s school would be marketed towards affluent families who have parents that work in the Research Triangle Park. The new charter school would also replicate efforts the Durham schools already had to increase its  with the opening of  STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program at Hillside New Tech High School [3] and Neal Middle School [4].

Natalie Beyer, a Durham school board member, said the large number of charter schools in Durham County has meant a drain of education dollars from the existing public school system. The Durham schools also serve a larger percentage of poor students, with 63 percent of the school’s population qualifying for free and reduced lunch, Beyer said. In Durham, seven out of the eight existing charter schools have a free and reduced population of less than 40 percent.

“That’s the reality,” Beyer said.

She also said she doesn’t understand why charter school operators like Blizzard don’t choose to work with existing public schools to implement new ideas, but instead move forward to open separate public schools that tend to serve students that come from more affluent, involved homes.

“Every idea doesn’t need to become a new school,” Beyer said.

Chair Bill Harrison said he still has concerns about whether charter schools would undermine ongoing efforts by traditional schools to be innovative, but saw no legal authority for the state board to block charter schools from opening in light of those concerns.

“I also look at the law and what we’re charged with,” Harrison said. “It does not say anything about prohibiting a STEM program if there’s already a STEM program existing.”

Future charter school applicants will have to undergo a one-year planning process. And there’s expected to be many in coming years, with growing interest in the state and nationally in establishing charter schools that are operate with less supervision outside of traditional school districts.

John Betterton, a principal of a Person County charter school and chair of a charter school advisory committee from the N.C. State Board of Education, said he’s expecting 50 to 70 more charter schools to apply in the next round of applications, which would pave the way for more schools to open in 2013.

Those signs of rapid growth and interest in charters raised several big-picture concerns at Thursday’s state school board meeting.

N.C. Treasurer Janet Cowell said she’s worried about the resulting effects that a rapid rise in charter school population will have on traditional school districts that have built new schools anticipating a certain amount of growth. In Pamlico County, upwards of 20 percent of public school children attend the Arapahoe Charter School [5], and that means a large diversion of public funds away from the traditional school district, Cowell said.

“As (state) treasurer, I’m concerned about what the financial impact this has on a local government,” she said.

Other state board members said that the increased interest in charters would lead to the funding of two separate public systems, and urged the N.C. General Assembly to wade back into the issue to offer guidance about how taxpayers will be able to fund both, and ensure that all children have access to all schools.

“We don’t know how long we can continue to fund two separate public school systems,” said Jean Woolard, an education board member from Plymouth.