Charter Schools

Written By Will Schultz

Charter schools are an educational reform intended to bring freedom of choice to public education. This freedom allows for growth, flexibility, and innovation. The North Carolina charter school movement began in the mid-1990s and has been controversial ever since.

Ray Budde, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, proposed the idea of charter schools in 1974. He believed that charter programs would give teachers greater control over their curriculum. Fourteen years later Minnesota became the first state with a charter program. Currently, forty-one states and the District of Columbia have charter schools. These programs serve 1.5 million students nationwide.

The exact definition of a charter school varies from state to state. However, most charter schools share certain characteristics. They receive public money, but are not governed by a local or state school board. Instead, each school is operated by a community board with the power to set school policies. Charter schools can hire their own teachers, set their own hours, and write their own curricula. This independence means charter schools can target specific types of student. Some cater to at-risk students; others reach out to gifted children. Failing charter schools run the risk of having their charter revoked by the state.   
The North Carolina charter school movement began in 1996, when the General Assembly approved the Charter School Act (CSA) sponsored by Senator Wib Gulley (D-Durham) and Representative Steve Wood (R-Guilford). CSA allowed any person, group, or non-profit organization to propose a charter school. The State Board of Education was given the power to approve or reject this proposal. Though charter schools were freed from many bureaucratic restraints, they were still required to administer standardized state tests. CSA capped the number of state charter schools at 100.

A flurry of activity followed the bill’s passage. Twenty-seven charter schools opened in 1997, including the Sterling Montessori Academy in Morrisville and Exploris Middle School in Raleigh. Some of these first charter schools experienced problems. Orange County’s School in the Community struggled with transportation, finance, and hiring issues; the school closed in 1999.  But there were also striking successes. In 1999, for instance, 93% of sixth graders at Durham’s Kestrel Heights School performed at or above grade level on their end-of-grade math exam. In general, charter schools slightly underperformed public schools on state tests during this period.

The 1997 Amend Charter School Laws Act was a mixed blessing for charter schools. On the one hand, it allowed local boards of education to comment on any proposed charter schools in their district. Although the new law gave the educational bureaucracy more control over charters, it required local boards to give extra resources to nearby charter schools.  Even so, many school board members remained hostile to charters. In 1998, for example, a North Carolina court reprimanded Asheville City Schools for illegally withholding money from a local charter.

Every year, charter school supporters have attempted to lift the statewide cap on charters. They argue that more charter schools are needed to increase the pace of educational innovation. The 100-school cap was reached in 2001. That same year, the state’s Charter School Advisory Board recommended raising the cap by 10% each year. In 2002, the State Board of Education asked the General Assembly to raise the cap by 10 schools. During the 2001-2002 session of the General Assembly, Representatives John Blust (R-Guilford) and Leo Daughtry (R-Johnston) introduced a bill to eliminate the cap altogether. However, anti-charter school forces such as the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) worked successfully to block this and similar bills.

Opponents of charter schools make several arguments against raising the cap. They point to a 2006 study by Robert Bifulco and Helen Ladd: It reports that charter school students lag behind public school students on end-of-grade tests. A 2007 report by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research (NCCPPR) came to a similar conclusion. NCCPPR also warned that charter schools were racially imbalanced. More than one-third of North Carolina charter school students are black; fourteen charter schools have a student body that is more than 95% black.  This has led critics like Bifulco and Ladd to accuse charter schools of resegregation.

Charter school advocates dismiss these criticisms as incorrect. They point out that charter schools often serve at-risk students, explaining their lower test scores. Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation has noted that charter schools often provide a better all-around learning environment. On average, charters have smaller class sizes and fewer discipline problems. Other studies have found that charter school performance improves over time. This finding casts doubt on the conclusions of the Bifulco and Ladd study, conducted less than ten years into the charter school experiment.

Public support for charter schools has remained strong since the passage of the 1996 Charter School Act. A 2006 survey by WRAL-TV found that 59% of North Carolinians favor raising the charter cap. According to a 2006 poll by the John Locke Foundation, 65% of Wake County residents want more charter schools in their county. North Carolina charter schools have lengthy waiting lists every year. During the 2007-2008 school year, Raleigh Charter High School had 705 applicants for 79 spots, while Franklin Academy Charter School had 1,524 applicants for 101 spots.

In recent years, North Carolina charter schools have had both successes and setbacks. A Blue Ribbon Commission on Charter Schools, convened by the State Board of Education in 2007, recommended raising the cap by six schools per year. But in the 2008 gubernatorial race, charter school advocate Pat McCrory was defeated by the NCAE-backed Beverly Perdue, who opposed lifting the cap. It also remains to be seen how President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” education policy will affect North Carolina charter schools. Whatever the result, it is clear that charter schools have become a permanent part of North Carolina’s education system.