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After a cap of one charter school per each of the 100 counties in North Carolina was lifted in 2011, 58 additional charter schools have opened and 15 more are expected to launch in fall 2016.
But the state office that screens new schools and oversees existing ones continues to operate with just six employees.
Observers have told Carolina Public Press that this represents a potentially serious lack of adequate staffing. Already, the office’s approach to site visits has been changed as a result of the growing numbers of schools.
The state approved legislation for charter schools in 1996; the first batch opened in 1997. Charter schools are tuition-free, independent public schools. They receive the same per-pupil funding that traditional public schools receive, but have more freedom in how they operate.
While they don’t have to adhere to North Carolina’s standard course of study, they do have to meet the same year-end requirements through assessments and testing.
While some educators and policy makers are philosophically or politically opposed to the nontraditional public schools for a range of reasons, supporters and critics alike generally emphasize the importance of adequate evaluation prior to schools opening and continued oversight to ensure success.
Nationally and statewide, the charter school movement can point to numerous success stories, but there have also been nightmarish failures. Some programs have collapsed in mid-year, leaving students, parents and educators dislocated and failed by the system.
The situation begs the question: As the number of charters continues to grow, how will the state keep an eye on so many schools?
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WNC success stories
When the Franklin School for Innovation, an Asheville charter school, applied in 2013 to the state to open, founder Michelle Vruwink found the process to be rigorous, she told CPP.
During the written application and in-person interview process with the state’s Charter School Advisory Board, the group behind the Franklin School had to lay out not only their educational model and curriculum plans, but also forecast their financials for the next five years, share their facilities plan, how they’d recruit and train teachers and how they’d address issues such as meeting the needs of exceptional students, their meal plan for students and even how students would be expected to get to and from school.
The founders of the Franklin School of Innovation were prepared with a detailed plan and did receive their charter. They spent the next year traveling to Raleigh once a month for additional training from the State Office of Charter Schools before opening their doors in 2014.
“We were an organized group,” said Vruwink, who formerly ran an education research and evaluation firm out of Asheville with her husband. “These are public dollars and I take that very, very seriously.”
Now coming up on the close of their second year in operation, the Franklin School for Innovation successfully serves students in sixth through 12th grade, she said.
Positive stories about Western North Carolina charter programs aren’t limited to highly urban areas like Asheville. In rural Rutherford County, Lake Lure Classical Academy offers another example, despite overcoming many challenges.
Chris Braund, a founding board member at the school and town manager for Lake Lure, said his school has found great success now serving 400 students in the greater Lake Lure area, but he acknowledges how easy it might be for a school without proper governance to run into problems.
Take facilities for example. Charter schools receive no state funding to lease or build a facility and must budget with the money they do have to plan accordingly.
“We have to be very frugal,” Braund said. “It has been very challenging for us. We existed our first five years in modular units.”
Lake Lure Classical Academy spent that time building up its reserves and recently completed a building to serve its kindergarten-through-12th-grade population with a $7 million budget — which is less than half of the average cost statewide to build the average public elementary school, Braund noted.
He said the state has put in place the necessary criteria to keep schools in line by requiring transparency into budgets, academics and operations.
“I don’t buy the argument that charter schools are out there and it’s the Wild West and they can do whatever they want,” Braund said.
He points out that running a charter means being both educator and business person, and having a board of directors that can do both.
“The purity and beauty of charter schools is they have to succeed or fail on their own,” Braund said. “Those that succeed figure out how to do their business well.”
Many charter schools across the state will tell similar success stories. But while no one is going to boast about their failures, those stories also exist.
In the 19 years since charter schools came online in North Carolina, 58 charters have either been revoked, not renewed, relinquished or the school applied for and received a charter, but that school never opened.
Twelve of those cases have been within the last five years, since the cap on schools was lifted.
While no Western North Carolina charters have failed, critics point to problems in schools like Entrepreneurship High School in Charlotte. The school closed its doors in early 2015, just six months after opening. According to the state office of charter schools, the high school’s charter was revoked for “finance and governance” issues.
Prior to opening, the school had projected an enrollment of 300 students, but only 120 arrived on the first day of classes. Compounding the problem, the school’s facility was not ready for opening day and students had to be housed in a temporary location. More parents withdrew their students from the school and the enrollment numbers dropped.
Just like traditional public schools, each school receives funding based on the number of students enrolled, and the school did not have sufficient funds to operate the school. By January 2015 it had run out of money. Parents were left scrambling for their children to find another place to attend school for the remainder of the school year.
Critics, and even those running successful schools in WNC, can see that it’s easy to run off the rails if a school’s administrators are not fully prepared for the challenges they’ll face.
Public Schools First North Carolina, a statewide nonpartisan organization advocating for strong traditional public schools, published a fact sheet on charter schools that voices some of those concerns.
Give the state’s 158 existing charter schools and the six staff members assigned to keep tabs on them, North Carolina will have just one state consultant for every 26 schools, Public Schools First NC estimates, noting that the national average is one consultant for every nine charter schools. The group points to this staffing issue as a major concern as the number of charters continues to grow.
With the school total expected to increase to 173 later this year, the imbalance will grow to one consultant for every 29 schools.
“Before the charter school cap was lifted, only a limited number of schools could be approved,” Public Schools NC states on its fact sheet. “With the absence of a cap as well as the approval of multiple applications in a single block, the State Board of Education faces a significant challenge in meeting the requirements of a rigorous review and tracking process.”
Public Schools First NC did not respond to repeated requests for an interview by CPP for this article.
Chris Cain, associate professor of education at Mars Hill University in Madison County, sees justifiable reason for concern in the small staff of the state office, he told CPP in an interview last week.
“There’s just not enough people,” he said. “They’re going to miss things that are going wrong, but there’s also good stuff they’re not seeing. Stuff is slipping through the cracks.”
Overall, Cain thinks the charter school concept is a good one, providing more freedom in the way students are taught and learn.
“One of the good things is that they aren’t held to the same standards and requirements and pressures of public schools,” he said. “That’s also what scares me about them.”
“If you’re a good teacher, sometimes the standards bear negatively,” he said. “If you’re a struggling teacher, you need that oversight.”
Deanna Townsend-Smith, lead consultant with the state office of charter schools, admits that while 100 schools was manageable for the small staff, the process had to change as that number grew.
Up until last year, for example, the state office did annual site visits to each school. As the number of schools grown, that’s not possible anymore, said Townsend-Smith.
Schools that are at-risk or have a charter that is up for renewal still receive visits.
The office now uses a “performance framework” to ensure all other schools are meeting the necessary requirements. Through reports and data filed by the school, the state looks annually at academic success, budgets, operations, staff development and support and governance, according to Townsend-Smith.
State statutes require the office to review each school every five years, but staff previously made the decision to review each school annually. Townsend-Smith said that’s still the preferred approach. “It’s just easier to do it every year and catch problems along the way,” she said.
Townsend-Smith said the most common issues her office encounters relate to school finances. They impact of financial instability on students may not always be direct, but it has consequences.
“Primarily they have closed for financial reasons,” she said, looking back at the schools that have failed. “But there have been a few that have closed for academic reasons.”
Local or state responsibility?
So who is responsible for that failure?
Townsend-Smith argues the state has implemented a rigorous application and evaluation process for charters, both prior to opening and during operations.
But ultimately, she said, the responsibility for success or failure falls to each individual school’s board of directors and leadership.
“We provide what they must do to stay compliant,” she said. “Then it’s up to the board to come up with a plan.”
Typically, as evidenced by what happened in Charlotte, problems begin with a decline in student enrollment, where school leaders don’t make budget adjustments to compensate. Expenditures exceed revenue and the school finds itself in trouble. And that’s typically a local issue, Townsend-Smith said.
“Most often, the board is not providing appropriate oversight,” she said.