News: CJ Exclusives

Despite strong charter-school growth, N.C. has many ‘deserts,’ study says

Charter schools have flourished in North Carolina since 2011, when the General Assembly removed the statewide cap of 100. Along with the rest of the country, though, that growth recently has started to slow.

This slowdown may be due to market saturation, as a report from the Thomas Fordham Institute suggests. Whatever the cause, some areas of high poverty still have no charter schools. They’re called charter school deserts.

A comprehensive study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute indicates North Carolina has 14 charter school deserts, above the 10.8 average per state. North Carolina is among 39 of 42 charter states that have at least one desert.

Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said the best charter schools can change the trajectory of a child’s life.

“What we have seen from the evidence is that quality charter schools now have a strong track record of boosting student achievement and other outcomes for low income kids,” Petrilli said. “We have finally seem to have hit on a strategy that works and so we want to make sure as many low income kids as possible can benefit from it.”

The study looks at only elementary-grade charter schools. Using census data, researchers identified areas of middle to high levels of poverty. Deserts are defined as three or more contiguous impoverished tracts without elementary charter schools.

North Carolina’s charter school deserts are mainly in the Charlotte metro area, the western and eastern parts of Durham metro, and the eastern and southwestern parts of Raleigh metro.

The study theorizes that political, legal, and fiscal obstacles including a lack of access to financial help to build facilities may cause these deserts. Policies restricting where charters can go and how many open also factor into where charter schools are built.

Petrilli said it is important to make sure policies governing charter schools don’t limit them to select areas, preventing charters from locating where they may be needed most. In North Carolina, charter schools don’t receive capital funding from the state and often have to find alternative ways to pay for school facilities, including direct fundraising.

“Sometimes you have local philanthropists who are interested in supporting charter schools but they keep their funding limited to the city, and again that is keeping charters from expanding to communities where they are needed,” Petrilli said.

Petrilli also said those wishing to start charter schools should widen their gaze to consider opening schools in high poverty areas that could benefit from charters.

“They should look for areas that are virgin territory that have great need but don’t yet have charter schools,” Petrilli suggested.