North Carolina’s Charter Boom Could Change Education Landscape

North Carolina welcomed charters into the state in the late 90s, but this year marks the first time that the number of those charters won’t be limited by a statewide hard cap. Two years ago, North Carolina finally allowed more than 100 charters to operate in the state and the results of this change are being felt for the first time.

The change allowed 29 additional charters to gain approval, with 23 starting classes this month alone. Many believe that this will lead to a completely different educational environment in the state, and although public schools will probably feel the heat from the competition, they won’t be the only ones. According to Antoinette Ellison, who leads Invest Collegiate, one of the schools opening their doors this academic year, private and parochial schools will also need to step up in order to retain their current students and attract new ones.

The new competitive environment might be tough on administrators and educators, but it should be a benefit for North Carolina students.

This week CMS principals and top administrators are at a two-day “transformation summit” at Hopewell High designed to make the district’s 160 schools more academically appealing and competitive.

Also this week, the state Board of Education will vote on new applications for charters opening in 2014. An advisory panel has recommended 26 for approval, including nine in Mecklenburg County. If all are approved and open, that will more than double the number of Mecklenburg charter schools in two years – from 12 in 2012 to 25 in 2014.

According to Ann Doss Helms of the Charlotte Observer, the charter expansion is not without its skeptics. Those who oppose school choice efforts believe that charters strip resources from public schools that badly need them. They also worry that public schools will be stuck picking up the pieces if the charters fail.

The state law gives charter schools a free hand in determining the calendar and setting hiring and firing policies. Invest Collegiate, for example, has already begun classes, and students will be attending without break until Thanksgiving. Ellison says that the school was able to attract a lot of promising teaching talent thanks to higher salaries.

The only thing the charters are not allowed to do is practice selective admissions. Parents can submit applications and students are chosen by lottery.

Joel Medley, director of the state Office of Charter Schools, says being free of a school district doesn’t guarantee success. Charters, like other public schools, span the spectrum from weak to outstanding, he says – an assessment backed up by national research.

The expansion of charters will only be successful if all public schools shift toward success, he said: “To me, the end result of this should be academic excellence.”