Twenty-five years ago this week the Tar Heel State legalized the creation of public charter schools. School choice advocates came together in Raleigh on Tuesday, June 22, to celebrate the milestone and highlight the impact of charter schools on families and students during the last quarter-century.

“There is a philosophical war underway right now,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, at a press conference. “It’s between bureaucrats and unions on one side who would like to force all children into one educational system controlled by those bureaucrats, and parents and children on the other side who wish to have a say in that child’s education.”

Today, more than 8% of N.C. public school students — around 126,000 in total — are enrolled in 200 charter schools located in 65 counties across the state. Demand continues to outpace supply as more than 76,000 names are on the waitlist for charters.

Even as traditional public schools in North Carolina experienced the sharpest enrollment declines in decades during the COVID-19 pandemic, charters have seen a 7% enrollment increase.

Also this month, North Carolina marked the 10-year anniversary of the action that allowed charter school growth to take off: legislation lifting the 100-school cap. That bill was passed nearly unanimously by both chambers of the General Assembly and signed into law by then-Gov. Bev Perdue.

The Department of Public Instruction also announced Tuesday that principals at charter schools will now be eligible to participate in the Principal of the Year selection process. Since 1984, Wells Fargo has financially supported the program in collaboration with DPI to recognize outstanding principals from N.C. public schools.

Praise for charters

One early beneficiary of the state’s charter school law spoke at the press conference. Tim Taylor is a former student at Arapahoe Charter School, one of the first charters to open in the state in 1997.

Taylor described how the community came together from every walk of life and political and religious persuasion to create the school. Taylor’s story has come full circle with his son now attending Arapahoe Charter.

“How do you define freedom in one word? The answer to that is choice,” Taylor said.

Other elected officials who spoke at the press conference underscored that charter schools empower families of fewer means to access a better education for their children.

“One child in this state because of where they live and the income of their parents should not be denied that opportunity to excel in education that would be available to others,” said House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland. “Charter schools, as well as many other alternatives, are a key part to providing the opportunity for that equality.”

“We live in a society where, by and large, a public school is determined by a ZIP code,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt. “But charter schools give students and families the opportunity to move past the idea that a ZIP code must determine where a child attends school.”

Moore also pointed out that many charter schools remained open during COVID-19 when traditional public school classrooms were closing.

“The charter schools really stepped up in a lot of ways,” Moore said.

Updates to charter school law

This session, lawmakers have passed a bill to open new funding sources and add flexibility to charter schools.

Under current law, when a charter school dissolves, all net assets of the school go to the local school administrative unit overseeing the charter. Under House Bill 729, capital-sourced assets would be exempted from that requirement.

Another change would be to allow counties to make direct appropriations to charter schools to buy real estate, furniture, school supplies, school technology, and similar capital equipment.

The bill also requires funding parity between traditional public school students and charter school students: “It is the intent of the General Assembly to ensure that all State funds for public school students attending charter schools are provided in amounts on a basis comparable to funds provided for public school students attending other public school units.”

A fourth provision in H.B. 729 allows charters to meet the yearly requirement for instructional days through a combination of in-person and remote instruction.