The U.S. Department of Education awarded North Carolina $10 million to bring more educationally disadvantaged students to charter schools, but state constraints on charters may make spending that money a challenge. 

Joseph Maimone, a member of the Charter School Advisory Board, said some charter schools may find it difficult to take full advantage of the grants. 

Maimone is also chief of staff for State Superintendent Mark Johnson and former headmaster at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Rutherford County.

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools don’t receive capital funding to build their facilities. 

“The reality is — let the elephant out here — that we’re going to have difficulty spending this money,” Maimone said during an Oct. 8 CSAB meeting, as reported by The News & Observer. “We’ve got to really think about how difficult it’s going to be to use up the entire grant.” 

But additional context is needed.

Maimone told Carolina Journal his concerns center around long waiting lists at charter schools and constraints on facility capacity for eligible programs. 

“This makes it difficult for them to take full advantage of the funding, since dollars cannot be used for facility expansion,” Maimone told CJ. “However, what was not reported is that there will be a lot of interest and support for new schools, as well.” 

Since 2011, when the General Assembly lifted the cap on charter schools, the number of charter schools has grown exponentially. Though 198 operate in the state, enrollment caps have spurred waiting lists at many schools. Estimates suggest more than 55,000 students sit on waiting lists in hopes of enrolling in a charter school. At Raleigh Charter High School, for example, 1,152 students applied for the ninth grade, starting this fall. The school, through a lottery, accepted 150 rising ninth-graders.  

Last year, North Carolina was one of eight states awarded money to expand charter school opportunities for students who are low-income, homeless, non-native English speakers, students with disabilities, immigrant students, migrant students, or unaccompanied minors. The U.S. Department of Education granted the state $26.6 million under a special program.

The additional $10 million awarded to the Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Charter Schools will go toward expanding N.C.’s Advancing Charter Collaboration and Excellence for Student Success program. The five-year program awards subgrants to qualifying charter schools to serve more educationally disadvantaged students. 

Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said the state’s charter schools need extra money to serve disadvantaged students. 

“Despite my philosophical objection to federal involvement in public education, I am pleased that North Carolina’s public charter schools will have access to these funds,” Stoops said. “Because they are one-time grants, it is critical that charter schools use these funds judiciously.”

Alex Quigley, chairman of the Charter School Advisory Board, said the award shows federal officials are confident in the Office of Charter Schools’ work. 

“These additional funds will further advance our efforts to ensure equitable access to outstanding public charter schools for all students,” Quigley said in a news release

The ACCESS program includes four subgrants. One subgrant helps new charter schools with implementation and planning, while another subgrant is just for implementation. Another helps a high-quality charter school expand access to more educationally disadvantaged students. The fourth subgrant aids qualifying schools looking to replicate their model. 

Additionally, the program plans to provide professional development for charter school leaders. The goal is to develop best practices for helping educationally disadvantaged students. 

OCS has already awarded nine charter schools with five-year subgrants, ranging from $250,000 to $600,000. 

The newly granted $10 million from the federal government will allow more charter schools to be considered for the ACCESS program.