Seventy-one would-be school operators have applied to open North Carolina charters in 2015-16, including 31 in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.
The latest round of applications, which will be screened by advisers and state officials, continues a trend that began when the state lifted its cap on charter schools in 2011: Interest in the Charlotte region dwarfs that in any other part of the state, including Raleigh.
The current round of applications includes 19 for Mecklenburg and three each for Gaston, Cabarrus, Iredell and Union counties. Wake and Durham counties each got eight applications, the largest total after Mecklenburg.
North Carolina currently has 127 charter schools, with 26 more slated to open in August 2014. The charter expansion could provide new options for thousands of Charlotte-area students even after state officials winnow out those they believe aren’t prepared to educate students and carry out a successful business plan.
Charters are an alternative type of public school run by independent boards and overseen by the state. They charge no tuition and generally accept all students, with selection done by lottery if there are more applicants than seats.
Unlike traditional public schools, they don’t have to offer transportation or meals, do not get local money for buildings and do not report to an elected board. County lines do not affect charter school attendance, and many in the Charlotte area pull students from two or more counties.
One message is clear: Families in the Charlotte region have a rapidly expanding menu of publicly funded education options. The announcement about 2015-16 charter applications came on the same day Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools approved a dozen new school options for 2014-15.
The coming school year also marks the first time low-income families are eligible for taxpayer-funded “opportunity scholarships” to attend private schools. On Wednesday, the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. Justice Center filed suit to stop the voucher program, saying it’s a misuse of money for public education.
Broader view of ‘public’
Judith Malveaux, who used to work for the CMS communications department, is one of the people who filed to open a charter school in 2015. The proposed Bastiat Classical School would be a K-8 language immersion school in south Charlotte, she said. In CMS, language magnets have proved popular.
“I’ve always been an advocate of public education,” Malveaux said.
Until recently, she said, she assumed that meant schools run by local districts. But she said her mother’s experience with a New Orleans school that was converted to a charter after Hurricane Katrina, along with her own work doing communications for the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, broadened her view.
“They really are a public education option,” said Malveaux, who runs her own communications business and teaches at Central Piedmont Community College.
Details about the applications, which were due to the state on Friday, have not yet been released. But the list posted Wednesday indicates the proposed locations span the region. Ten-year enrollment projections range from 150 K-12 students at an Iredell County school to more than 1,000 students at seven prospective schools, mostly in suburban locations.
The names of three charters indicate they’ll specialize in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – which is also a high-demand magnet theme in CMS. One indicates it will be an arts school.
Plans for 23,000 kids
The 31 applications project serving a total of 23,000 students by their 10th year. (Many charters open with a limited number of grades and expand.) However, it’s unlikely they’ll all get permission to open.
Applicants must still persuade state officials that they have a viable business and education plan. The applications will be reviewed by staff from the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, a state advisory panel that includes several existing charter operators and the state Board of Education.
This year’s application numbers are similar to 2014-15. That year, the state got 70 applications, including 19 from Mecklenburg and 10 from surrounding counties. The state board of education gave preliminary approval to 26, including 11 in the Charlotte region. The state Board of Education will take a final vote on those schools in January.
“We hope there are many quality applications in the lot” for 2015, said Eddie Goodall of Union County, a former state senator who heads the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association. Despite the growing numbers, he said, the demand has not yet been met.
Many charters in the Charlotte region have waiting lists and must hold admission lotteries.
While charter school enrollment has grown, so has enrollment in CMS, which serves more than three-quarters of Mecklenburg’s school-age children. CMS added almost 3,000 students this year, reaching a total of 144,140 K-12 students.
“I’m a fan of quality charter schools. I just want there to be quality controls,” Superintendent Heath Morrison said Wednesday. But he said he has concerns that the rapid expansion makes it difficult for CMS to plan and will put charters in competition with each other as well as CMS.
“At some point they’ll cannibalize each other,” he said.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms