News: CJ Exclusives

JLF: Demand for Charters Grows

Cap on charter schools hampers adequate distribution of opportunities

Smaller school and class sizes, innovative curricula, and better discipline are leading more North Carolina parents to choose charter schools for their children, according to a new John Locke Foundation Policy Report.

The report says charter schools could offer more benefits if the state relaxed current restrictions. “State legislators must expand and strengthen North Carolina’s system of charter schools by removing the statutory cap of 100 schools, easing the regulatory burden placed upon the state’s charter schools, and ensuring that all charter schools have adequate resources,” said report author Terry Stoops, JLF education policy analyst.

Stoops analyzed North Carolina’s 10-year history with charter schools, tuition-free public schools that have more freedom than traditional public schools. Those schools enroll about 30,000 N.C. students.

“Enrollment has increased approximately 50 percent over the last five years,” he said. “Demand shows no signs of slowing. Current charter schools have been forced to place more than 5,200 children on waiting lists for 2007-2008. One charter school in Wake County had more than 1,500 applications for about 100 slots.”

Despite the demand, state law limits charters to no more than 100 schools across the state, Stoops said. “That means only 48 of the state’s 115 school systems have charter schools,” he said. “The state’s 14 northeastern counties have no charter schools. State regulations fail to distribute charter school opportunities equally to thousands of parents and children across the state.”

Along with lifting the charter school cap, Stoops recommends that lawmakers: endorse an “education bill of rights” that ties state funding to a student, not to a school system; create franchises that would allow successful charter school operators to avoid the state’s lengthy application and approval process; and reconfigure North Carolina’s lottery formula to allow some lottery proceeds to flow to charter school students.

Charter school parents say features of the schools’ learning environments make the schools more attractive than traditional options, Stoops said. That includes the smaller size of most charter schools, he said. “The median charter school has 243 fewer students than district schools with similar grade ranges,” he said. “That smaller size makes a difference. There is overwhelming evidence that extracurricular participation and parental involvement are greater in small schools.”

Parents also welcome the diverse curriculum and instruction methods in charter schools, and they appreciate charter schools’ records of better student discipline. “In 2005-2006, male students in district schools averaged 3.1 short-term suspensions for every 10 students, while the rate was 1.0 suspensions per 10 students in charter schools.”

Minority parents have “enthusiastically” sought charter school options for their children, Stoops said. “Charter schools teach a higher percentage of African-American students than district schools teach, and the overall rate of charter school minority students is comparable to the rate at traditional schools.”

Stoops exposes flaws in other charter school studies, and he debunks the criticism that charter school students fall short academically. “There is no conclusive quantitative evidence that North Carolina charter school students lag behind their counterparts in traditional schools,” he said. “Meanwhile, the qualitative research articles are, in general, flawed conceptually. They offer little insight.”

Parents and taxpayers think charter schools can help North Carolina cope with multi-billion-dollar school facility needs, Stoops said. “Poll results consistently show support for increasing charter school options,” he said. “Because charter schools receive no state or local funds for their buildings, they can reduce taxpayer spending on school construction, while quickly and efficiently providing seats to growing school systems.”

“If the North Carolina Constitution truly grants citizens a ‘general and uniform’ system of public education, then it must also guarantee the right of all parents to choose a charter school for their children,” he said.