RALEIGH — North Carolina’s school board is clearing 25 new charter schools to gear up for opening next year, the biggest jump since a statewide limit on charter schools was removed last year.
The State Board of Education voted Thursday to authorize the schools to open in August 2013. Eight new ones were approved earlier this year and opened for the new academic year, bringing the statewide total to 107.
State school board chairman Bill Harrison offered the only comments before the vote, complimenting the hours of work by a screening committee of outside volunteers in cutting down the 63 groups that applied to open and operate charter schools starting next year. The state’s education department and outside advisers also reviewed which groups were financially and organizationally prepared to operate with taxpayer money.
Charters are public schools run by nonprofits and allowed to operate with fewer of the regulations facing traditional schools. Until state law was changed last year, they were limited to 100 statewide since the first was established in the mid-1990s.
“We are excited about new doors for parents and children being opened by these passionate charter entrepreneurs,” North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association executive director Eddie Goodall said. “We will hold them accountable for quality academic performance in exchange for the autonomy granted them by the state.”
The schools gaining approval Thursday now start planning and training for opening day, and the state school board has to certify by March that they are ready. In the coming months, key members of the nonprofit groups behind each school and their key employees will be trained on cash management, their legal duties, and the nuts and bolts of managing an operation in a way that protects taxpayer money.
Just one of the 25 spread across 17 counties was controversial. A Raleigh high school focusing on fine arts changed its plans between the time it submitted its application in April and when organizers were interviewed in June. The Longleaf School of the Arts voted 7-6 to recommend the school, with the panel’s chairman breaking a tie.
The liberal North Carolina Justice Center had wanted the state school board to scrutinize Longleaf and most of the rest of the candidates because it says they have shortcomings that threaten to bar some students from the option of attending the charter school. For example, 16 of the 25 applicants rely on carpools or parent drivers to transport students, with the lack of buses potentially ruling out poor or disabled children, the group said.
Between the screening committee and the school board, the public is getting good assurance that schools that stretch education options will be well run, said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. The Public Charter School Advisory Council meets on Tuesday to further hone the screening process.
But while groups encouraging more charter schools are finding success, some traditional public schools are crying foul.
Five of the new charter schools will be in Mecklenburg County, adding to the 12 schools already operating. That clustering of charter schools in urban school districts led administrators in Mecklenburg, Durham and Guilford counties to lodge complaints that they are siphoning away funds from traditional public schools.
The North Carolina School Boards Association said in a report this summer that the expanding number of charter schools is setting up two separate and unequal public education systems operating simultaneously under different legal and ethical requirements.