Charter School Population Doubles in North Carolina

January 3, 2017; Charlotte Observer

A required annual state report on charter schools will be presented to a legislative committee in North Carolina this week, and it generally reflects good news for the state’s charter schools.

Charter school attendance in North Carolina has doubled since 2011, when the state removed a 100-school cap. Almost 92,000 students attend charter schools in North Carolina, representing about 6 percent of the state’s 1.5 million students enrolled in public schools. Traditional public school enrollment has remained flat or declined slightly.

Alexis Schauss, the state’s director of school business, said the state’s growth is “being absorbed by charter schools and home schooling.”

Enrollment in homeschooling in the state is far more difficult to ascertain, with the U.S. Department of Education estimating that 3.4 percent of children are homeschooled, while homeschool advocates dispute the federal methodology and claim far larger numbers. Meanwhile, enrollment in private schools has remained fairly constant at 98,000 students.

State officials expected even more rapid growth in charters, which are independent public schools administered by nonprofit boards. The Observer reports that both federal and state officials are exploring ways to expand the number and role of charter schools in the state while efficiently improving or closing charters that fail in their missions. In North Carolina, public school revenues fund operational expenses for charter schools but do not fund school buildings. This makes charters an especially attractive option for school districts with increasing populations, where increased enrollment requires building construction.

Charter school growth has been more pronounced in the state’s urban centers. School district reactions to this growth have been decidedly mixed. On the one hand, districts seek to compete by establishing their own themed schools; on the other hand, they worry about the charter schools’ ability to pull students from multiple school districts (or even statewide using online charters) and complicating districts’ geography-based attendance planning.

School officials claim that charters serve fewer low-income students, with 30 percent of charter students and 50 percent of traditional students identified as low income. Charter representatives point out that income status is often reported based on students’ participation in the federal school lunch program. Some charter schools don’t participate in the program, so their low-income students aren’t counted or reported in statewide statistics.

Easier similarities and differences to identify include attendance by race/ethnicity and academic performance. Charters have more white students (57.1 percent vs. 49.5 percent) and fewer Hispanic students (8.4 percent vs. 16.6 percent) than school districts, according to the report. Black and Asian enrollment was nearly identical, at 26 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

The most disturbing statistic in the report is the disparity between charters and traditional public schools in the percentage of college-ready students. According to the Observer article, “The report notes that 38 percent of charter schools had at least 60 percent of students earning college-ready scores on state exams, compared with 5 percent of district schools hitting that mark.”

Based on the news article, the state’s annual report has little additional information on school and individual student performance, which is key information necessary to evaluate the relative merits and value of the state’s two competing public school models. There is enough critical and even pejorative research on charters that it seems only prudent for North Carolina to expand its assessment parameters in future state reports.—Michael Wyland