May 18, 2023 - News

North Carolina is paving the way for charter schools’ rapid expansion

Photo: Ashley Mahoney/Axios

Charter schools started as education laboratories. But in just over a decade, they’ve grown rapidly, causing a political rift over the future of education.

Catch up quick: In 2011, the North Carolina General Assembly lifted a 100-school cap on the number of charter schools that could be authorized in the state.

  • Since then, the number of charters has more than doubled to 204, 33 of which are in Mecklenburg, per the most recent report from the NC Department of Public Instruction. And they are continuing to expand.

Why it matters: Where and how children are educated is one of the most controversial issues families face. Education advocates disagree over whether focusing resources on traditional public schools or promoting other options, like charters and private schools, is the best way to set children up for success.

What’s happening: Advocates of school choice are taking victory laps as the new GOP supermajority in the North Carolina General Assembly sets its sights on further reshaping education in the state.

  • The goal, proponents say, is to provide families with additional options, and for public dollars to support students and not be tied to school systems.
  • But critics say the state is bleeding dry already-struggling traditional public schools and allowing charter and private schools to expand with less accountability.

“They’re just wanting to make sure that the charters don’t have any speed bumps or roadblocks at all,” says Heather Koons, communications director for Public Schools First North Carolina, which advocates for public education. “What’s ensuring the public that students are going to receive a quality education?”

Context: Support for charter schools among Republican lawmakers is not new. But Charlotte state house Rep. Tricia Cotham’s switch from Democrat to Republican cemented a veto-proof majority for the GOP, with a newly-Republican state Supreme Court no longer standing in its way.

  • As Cotham stood in front of reporters to announce her party change, the former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher and assistant principal stressed the shortcomings of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education.
  • She is a cosponsor of multiple bills on education, which propose expanding private school vouchers and shifting who approves new charter schools.

Details: GOP Rep. John Bradford, who represents north Mecklenburg, is one of the lawmakers behind the Charter School Omnibus bill, which includes allowing counties to fund capital costs at charter schools and for charter schools to expand their maximum enrollment each year without approval from the state Board of Education.

  • The bill, HB 219, creates a “more level playing field” for charter schools, Bradford told Axios via text.
  • “I believe traditional public schools and public charters can co-exist and learn from each other,” he said.

What they’re saying: Currently, charters have to raise their own money for facilities, which often requires them to take out massive loans, says Anthony Rodriguez, vice president of charter school support services consulting firm Goodall Consulting. He says the omnibus bill would be a significant help.

  • “When you have a mom-and-pop charter that starts out, they’re going to need that funding to help build that vision and gain the confidence of parents,” he says.

But increasingly, some charters are being managed by for-profit corporations.

Zoom in: Matthew Ridenhour, a former Republican county commissioner, is the chairperson of the board at Steele Creek Preparatory Academy, which opened in 2019.

The board sets policies, but a for-profit corporation, Charter Schools USA, runs the day-to-day operations of the school.

  • Jonathan Hage, founder of Florida-based Charter Schools USA, donated thousands last year to state lawmakers backing some of North Carolina’s proposed education-related legislation — including House speaker Tim Moore.

Ridenhour says working with Charter Schools USA allowed the school access to capital and institutional knowledge on running a school.

  • “Just because CSUSA is a for-profit organization does not mean that they’re just raking in gobs of money off the backs of taxpayers and laughing themselves silly all the way to the bank,” Ridenhour says. “It means that they’re competing in a space and they’re trying to put a good product out in the marketplace that attracts students.”
  • In return for running the schools, Charter Schools USA and other education management companies typically take a percentage of revenues.

Yes, but: Others are skeptical of the involvement of for-profit corporations in education. The North Carolina State Board of Education has recently rejected applications for schools in Union and Rockingham counties that would have been run by for-profit firms.

  • James Ford, a former North Carolina Teacher of the Year and member of the state board of education, is opposed to what he describes as “commodifying the education industry.”

Driving the news: Another proposed measure, House Bill 618, would strip the state board of its power to decide on new charter school applications and renewals. Instead, it would hand that authority to a new Charter Schools Review Board. The current Charter School Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to the state board, would become the Charter Schools Review Board.

  • The state board of education comprises the lieutenant governor, the state treasurer and 11 members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. But under HB618, eight of the 12 members of the Charter Schools Review Board would be appointed by the General Assembly.
  • Another proposal, House Bill 17, would make members of the state board of education elected from districts drawn by the legislature. That bill hasn’t advanced since February.

Ford believes he and other members of the board were targeted by these proposals. Axios contacted multiple sponsors of HB618 and none made themselves available to comment.

Rodriguez says the state board is biased against for-profit companies managing charter schools, and he says the delays in the approval process are harming the schools’ ability to open.

  • He notes that district and charter schools alike hire for-profit companies for various services.

The big picture: North Carolina is failing its constitutional obligation to provide a sound basic education to children in the state, a court ruling found last year. To remedy that, the North Carolina State Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling in 2022 mandating that the General Assembly fund two years of the $5.6-billion, eight-year Leandro plan.

  • But when the state Supreme Court flipped to majority Republican this year it ruled that North Carolina does not have to release that money.
  • “The root cause of people wanting to leave traditional public schools in the first place never gets fixed, which creates an incentive for people to leave traditional public schools,” Ford says.

Charter schools were originally envisioned as innovation hubs that could share successful ideas with district schools. But the issue has become so polarizing the two sides are often at odds with each other.

The bottom line: At the crux of the debate is to what degree school funding should be at the individual student level.

  • “Do we get to fund our part of the road?” Ford asks. “Do we get to fund only the bridges that we drive on? … It’s hyper individualism, and it cuts against this idea that if I don’t directly benefit from something then it shouldn’t exist.”
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