Demand for new charter schools in the Tar Heel State has surged following the enactment of a bill approved by the N.C. General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Bev Perdue in 2011 that lifted the 100-school cap.

By mid-April, approximately 60 applications — a record-breaking number — for new charters had been submitted to the N.C. Office of Charter Schools. If approved, the new charter schools would open by the fall of 2013.

The applications run the gamut of rural and urban regions across North Carolina — from the Triad, Triangle, and Charlotte regions to rural Randolph and Chatham counties.

In Wake County, two schools — Longleaf School of the Arts and Wisdom Academy — submitted applications. If all of Mecklenburg County’s 11 applications are OK’ed, the county could soon a boom in charter-school growth.

“Many predicted that the state would receive between 50 and 100 applications, so this is in line with expectations,” said Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation (publisher of Carolina Journal). “Most of the applications are from urban and suburban counties where demand for existing charter schools far outpaces supply. This is what we would expect from a property functioning education market.”

In a rare instance last year of bipartisan agreement on a major bill, the legislature approved Senate Bill 8, No Cap on Number of Charter Schools, by an almost unanimous vote. The two chambers passed differing versions of the bill, but lawmakers hammered out differences in a conference committee, resulting in a 45-0 vote in the Senate a 108-5 vote in the House. Gov. Bev Perdue signed the bill into law in June.

Charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars but don’t operate under many of the restrictions imposed on traditional public schools. As a result, demand for students to attend the schools is high, in many counties resulting in lengthy waiting lists.

“Thirty-thousand students are currently on public charter waiting lists, so clearly parents are seeking new ways to educate their children in environments that meet their unique needs,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a group that favors education reform.

“It is our hope that other education entrepreneurs across North Carolina understand that the ball is now in their court to form groups that blossom into new charter schools,” said Eddie Goodall, executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association.

Charter growth

Even as North Carolina’s economy continues to lag, charter schools are experiencing a historic boom. An April article in the Charlotte Observer reported that charters are expected to account for one-third of all public school enrollment growth in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2013.

“Projections show CMS gaining about 2,000 students next year, an increase of about 1.4 percent,” the newspaper reported. “About 1,000 more Mecklenburg students will attend charters, a 12 percent jump.”

“I really do believe that you’re going to see more and more families, particularly working middle-class, working-poor, choosing these options that heretofore haven’t been available,” Allison said.

The renewed interest in charter schools isn’t confined to the Old North State. Georgia’s legislature voted in March to put the issue before voters in the November election. A proposed constitutional amendment would restore the right of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission to OK new charters, even if local boards of education have rejected the schools.

Lawmakers passed the amendment in response to a Georgia Supreme Court ruling in 2011 that stripped the commission of its power.

‘Fast track’ option

In North Carolina, the State Board of Education put nine charter schools on its “fast track” option, meaning that they have four months of planning time rather than the traditional 12-month period. These schools are slated to open in August 2012.

A total of 27 organizations submitted applications for the fast track option by the November 2011 deadline, but the N.C. Public Charter School Advisory Council recommended only nine of them to the state board for approval.

The advisory council has 15 members: eight appointed by the governor, three by the speaker of the House, three by the president pro tem of the Senate, and one by the state superintendent of public instruction.

Stoops said that he was “satisfied” with the advisory council’s recommendations. “The process of opening a charter school in six months is daunting, even to the most seasoned charter-school operator,” he said. “Fortunately, the applicants approved for ‘fast tracked’ charters have the experience and resources needed to open a charter school quickly and successfully.”

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.