This month, North Carolinians will celebrate the silver anniversary of North Carolina’s charter school law. It is a time to celebrate and reflect on how far the movement has come over the last 25 years.
A unique set of circumstances allowed the passage of North Carolina’s charter school law. In 1994, North Carolina Republicans benefited from a nationwide revival of American conservatism. For the first time since the Civil War, a Republican majority took control of the North Carolina House of Representatives, and the party made significant gains in the state Senate. Shortly after this overwhelming victory, the leaders of the new House majority outlined an ambitious education agenda that included vouchers, tax credits, and charter schools.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools of choice operated by nonprofit boards and are afforded staffing, financial, and instructional flexibility. The idea gained popularity following a March 1988 speech delivered by American Federation for Teachers President Albert Shanker before the National Press Club. Shanker envisioned a law that would allow a group of enterprising public-school teachers to create an autonomous school of choice within an existing public school. Inspired by the moniker conceived by Ray Budde of the University of Massachusetts, Shanker adopted the term “charter school” in an op-ed published in the New York Times a few months later.
In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to approve a charter school law, and California passed a charter law a year later. By the time North Carolina lawmakers introduced charter school legislation in 1995, 11 states had passed charter school laws, and 134 schools were in operation in nine of those states.
While there was considerable support for charter schools during the 1995 legislative session, lawmakers could not resolve disagreements between House and Senate plans. The House version did not limit the number of schools and permitted various governmental entities, including city and county governments, to authorize the schools. The Senate version imposed tighter controls, including capping the number of schools at 100 and allowing no more than three charter schools per district. Lawmakers could not reconcile the two versions, and the effort to introduce charter schools to North Carolina would have to wait until the following year.
At the start of the 1996 legislative session, Democratic Senator Wib Gulley and Republican Representative Steve Wood sought to create charter school legislation acceptable to the leadership of both chambers. After months of wrangling, members of a House conference committee drafted a compromise bill at midnight the day before legislative leaders planned to adjourn. Republican Speaker of the House Harold Brubaker and his counterpart, Democratic Senate President Pro Tempore Mark Basnight, signed off on House Bill 955 on the last day of the session: June 21, 1996.
With the passage of H.B. 955, North Carolina became the 25th state in the nation and the fourth in the Southeast to approve charter school legislation. Later that year, the State Board of Education would receive 55 applications for charters and select 34 to begin operation in 1997. Of the original pool of approvals, 19 remain in operation today.
Fifteen years after the passage of the law, charter schools represented only a fraction of the total public school population. During the 2010-11 school year, North Carolina had 99 charter schools enrolling over 41,000 students, representing only 2.8% of the state’s public school enrollment. A 100-school cap and enrollment growth limitations from the 1996 law continued to shackle the movement, just as they were designed to do.
Fortunately, newly elected Republican majorities led by then-House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger made charter school reform a top priority, and they successfully removed the cap in 2011. Thanks to the efforts of Republican lawmakers, educational entrepreneurs, and most importantly, families, North Carolina currently has nearly 200 charter schools enrolling well over 127,000 students. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 8.2% of the state’s public school population attend charter schools, and tens of thousands more remain on waitlists.
Polls confirm the popularity of charter schools in North Carolina. According to the January 2021 Civitas Poll, nearly 59% of likely voters support charter schools, while only 28% oppose them. While Democrats (particularly Democrats identifying as men) remain skeptical, Republican and unaffiliated voters strongly support charters. A plurality of Black respondents and a majority of Hispanics approve. Support for charter schools cuts across geographic, socioeconomic, and demographic divisions.
After the passage of the 1996 charter school law, the editors of the News & Observer declared that it is “hard to tell, at the dawn of charter schools, whether North Carolina is taking a step toward genuine strengthening of public schools or whether it is just dabbling in a craze.” Twenty-five years later, we have a definitive answer. Charter schools have strengthened public education in North Carolina and will continue to do so for decades to come.