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Charter Schools in NC Expand Choice in Public Education


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Choice in public school used to mean deciding between white or chocolate milk, but the inception of charter schools in 1997 has given families who rely on the public school system more options.

All charter schools are public schools, operating on a charter issued by the State Board of Education and reporting to an advisory board consisting of 11 voting members (in accordance with laws passed by the N.C. General Assembly). Those advisory board members, who serve four-year terms under the direction of the State Board of Education, oversee public charter schools and approve charter applicants.

Charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars, but are administered privately. Each school operates according to a unique “charter,” which describes the school’s mission, goals and plan for achieving those goals.

In North Carolina, the number of charter schools had been capped at 100 statewide, but in 2011 the general legislature lifted the limit. There are currently 129 charter schools in the state, and another 30 could open in the Triangle during the 2014-15 school year.

Unlike district public schools, which require that students live in a designated neighborhood, all North Carolina residents are eligible to attend any charter school in the state.

“Americans can pick which grocery store, where to live and what car to drive,” says Baker Mitchell, chairman of the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools and owner of Charter Day School in Leland. “Charter schools allow parents to choose where to send their child to school, just like upper-income people can. Ideally, charter schools will create competition with district public schools and force them to improve.”

Cultivating Competition

Like private schools, admission to charter schools is competitive. They aren’t allowed to specify admission criteria, but there also are not enough spaces for everyone who applies. If there is a waiting list, charter schools grant admission based on a lottery.

“We have a wait list for every grade at Orange Charter School,” says Richard Peterson, chair of the school’s board of directors and father of two daughters who are enrolled there.

It’s a similar situation at East Wake Academy in Zebulon, where the school only has 86 slots for kindergarten but regularly receives more than 300 applications, says Superintendent Stephen Gay.

A Flexible Curriculum

Because they don’t fall under the purview of the local school board, charter schools tend to have more control over curriculum and teaching methods.

“Charter schools are more specialized and focused,” says Pamela Blizzard, managing director of Research Triangle High School, which focuses on science and technology. “We have to meet the same educational standards, but definitely have more flexibility in how we get there.”

This independence means teachers play a stronger role in making decisions about student learning than they do in district schools, says John Heffernan, director of Central Park School for Children in Durham. “At charter schools, we can have direct control over the math and literacy curriculum,” he says. “When teachers have more control over content, they are more passionate to connect with students.”

Ideally, charter schools can offer children a specialized approach to education. “I compare district schools to Cracker Barrel — where you can get the same thing everywhere you go — and charter schools to a mom-and-pop diner,” Gay says. “A lot of times charter schools offer a smaller atmosphere, class size, more of a community feel.” Parents often sit on the board of directors, so their opinions can shape the direction of the school.

All public charter school teachers must meet the federal definition of “highly qualified,” but like many private schools, charter schools have the option of hiring some teachers who are not licensed by the state, which opens up the possibility of bringing in experts from the private sector. Fifty percent of the teaching staff can be noncertified, but many charter schools hire only licensed teachers.

Measuring Up

“Charter schools don’t have to follow the state’s core curriculum, but that doesn’t mean they have lower standards,” says Joel Medley, director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools. “They actually have more academic accountability than a district school. If they don’t have a 60 percent passage rate of state tests for three years in a row, they can be closed.”

Closure of charter schools is rare, however, and since 2011 only one school has actually been shut down for poor perfor-mance (Highland Charter School in Gaston County). All charter schools must undergo annual financial and performance audits, and students must take state-required end-of-year tests.
The Money Gap

Although charter schools are funded by the state, they receive less money than district schools, since they are only allocated a certain amount of money per student, paid by the county from which the student comes. “We get no bond money from the county and no lottery funds,” Heffernan says. “That’s $200,000 that district schools have that we don’t.”

Charter schools do offer free and reduced lunch to qualifying students and receive funds earmarked for serving students with disabilities, but the schools are not required to provide transportation.

Parental Guidance

Because charters schools receive less discretionary funding than regular public schools, they lean heavily on parent volunteers to help with building maintenance, activities and classroom assistance.

“We often rely on parents rather than teachers to supervise extracurricular events,” Peterson says.

Blizzard agrees, saying, “Parents drive kids to field trips, set up the IT structure, tutor and even function as substitute teachers. We really rely on them.”


Jill Moffett is a freelance writer and full-time mother based in Durham. She blogs regularly at jillmoffett.com.

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