News: CJ Exclusives

Prospective Charter Schools Applications Surge Into Raleigh

But critics fear that state regulators will stifle innovation

RALEIGH — Potential charter school operators, including two that would operate online, flooded the state with 154 letters of intent to open in fall 2014, punctuating a growing appetite for alternatives to traditional public education.

But some education observers worry that the State Board of Education is signaling an eagerness to impose more regulations that would defeat the innovation that makes charters an attractive option for parents.

Critics contend that regulations just rolled out by the State Board of Education for digital distance-learning providers are more restrictive than necessary, and that the board’s “unprecedented” refusal to allow a Pamlico County charter to add high school grades to its class offerings is “worrisome.”

“We were expecting quite a few, [but 154] was not what we were expecting,” Joel Medley, director of North Carolina’s Office of Charter Schools, said of the huge volume of letters of intent received by the Jan. 4 deadline. Formal applications are due by noon, March 1. (Initial reports said 161 applications were filed, but that number was overstated because of a database glitch.)

“One of the things that we did not expect was as many as we saw in Mecklenburg County,” from which there were 30 applications, including the two virtual schools, Medley said. Multiple letters of intent also were sent from the Greensboro and Raleigh areas.

“There were even some in smaller counties that currently do not have charter schools, so there is a possibility of breaking some new ground in some new areas,” Medley said.

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a Raleigh-based school-choice advocacy organization, said with 30,000 North Carolina families on charter school waiting lists, he was not surprised to see 154 letters of intent.

“This is proof that that demand and desire is there,” he said.

However, he cautioned: “When they open up that application packet and see what’s in it, trust me, you will not have 154 applications coming in. It’s hard work, and there will be some, I’m sure, that will pull off to the side of the road and take a break.”

Simply achieving high numbers is not the goal, he said.

“Though we are unabashedly supportive of quality parental choice,” Allison said, “we will be an organization on the front line advocating just as fervently for quality,” and closing ill-equipped and underperforming charter schools.

More choices, more regulations

Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said as the charter school movement grows, so do the State Board of Education’s creeping regulatory vines.

“I think it’s absolutely worrisome that since 2005 the number of charter school regulations passed by the State Board of Education has accelerated,” Stoops said.

Charters “should be free from regulation, and they should be given a measure of autonomy that allows them to be innovative and experiment with new approaches,” Stoops said.

“If we continue to regulate them, in fact, overregulate them, then they just become like any other district school,” and it defeats the purpose of creating them, he said.

“[W]hat we have to do is get rid of the lists and lists of regulations, controls, and other impediments that just get in the way of teaching,” Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said Wednesday after being re-elected speaker of the House.

“We must find meaningful ways to deregulate K-12 public schools to put the power back in the schools and back into the classroom,” he said.

“We will continue to advocate for charter schools and parental involvement in where their children go to school,” Tillis said.

“We must encourage cost-efficient innovation in our schools by focusing on new technology such as digital learning, and we must reward school systems for becoming more efficient, allowing them to keep the money that they save and reinvest it in areas they believe will improve education outcomes,” Tillis said.

He recounted a discussion he had about a month ago with a superintendent of “one of the largest school districts in the state.” He was considering applying for a charter school because of the added flexibility to create innovative programs.

“And I asked him, ‘Rather than giving you one or two schools in your district that have that flexibility, why don’t we work on what we have to do to give every school in your district that flexibility,’” Tillis said.

Board barriers

Some, like Stoops, believe the State Board of Education is not only a key hindrance to removing regulatory barriers to education reform, but also the architect of the hurdles. He cited the board’s new guidelines for online charter schools as an example.

“They’re very stringent guidelines,” Stoops said. They include enrollment restrictions, limiting offerings to K-12, and prescribing “ways the money is doled out,” he said.

“What [the State Board of Education] is doing is they have a monopoly right now with the [state-run] North Carolina Virtual Public School, and they’re limiting competitors,” Stoops said.

Last year, the board’s president, Bill Harrison, unilaterally decided the state would not accept applications for virtual charter schools. His action is now the subject of a lawsuit.

Allison said he would reserve any comment about the virtual school guidelines until the General Assembly takes up the proposal.

“Before we rush into the details I want us all to step back and take note of what happened yesterday from a big point of view,” Allison said.

Until now, virtual schools were “never part of the conversation, never given even a second of deliberation,” he said. “I think this is the first step, but I think it’s a major step,” and demonstrated a landmark shift in thinking on a State Board of Education whose members were appointed by previous Democratic governors.

Arapahoe denial

Stoops also criticized the board’s decision Thursday to deny Arapahoe Charter School permission to expand its kindergarten through ninth-grade model to include grades 10-12 “based solely on the fact that they felt that Arapahoe had too large of a market share,” Stoops said. “This is really unprecedented.”

Arapahoe “is extremely popular in Pamlico and surrounding counties,” Stoops said. “This is an arbitrary cap placed on charter schools by the State Board of Education based on some arbitrary tipping point they decided to come up with.”

Medley said he viewed the Arapahoe decision as a case-by-case vote based on the merits.

“I can’t really speak for the state board, but I believe the concern rested with the impact it would have on the [school district],” Medley said.

“We need to take a look at this whole idea of the impact studies. We have been studying that,” Allison said.

He said he would not wade into the details until more research is conducted.

Arapahoe was one of 12 recommendations put forth Thursday by Medley’s office involving grade expansions, grade expansions combined with enrollment growth beyond the allowable 20 percent, and some just for enrollment growth beyond 20 percent. Others were passed, Medley said.

Changes on the board

Gov. Pat McCrory could swing the 13-member State Board of Education to a majority that’s sympathetic to his perspective by March. The governor will make three appointments to the board that were held over from the last session of the General Assembly, terms will expire for three others in March, and reform-minded Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest sits on the board as an ex-officio member.

Stoops said the new General Assembly and new State Board of Education “will have to answer the question of what type of regulations do we want on charter schools, especially with regard to how fast they’re growing, are there limits to how many students they should be enrolling or no limits. I’m inclined to say there should be no limits, but the regulations are there to limit the enrollment in charter schools and I don’t think those are going to go away.”

Formal applications received by March 1 will go to subcommittees of the 15-member North Carolina Public School Advisory Council for review before being voted on by the full council for recommendation to the State Board of Education.

“They’ll get their preliminary approval sometime in July or August,” Medley said.

Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.