RALEIGH — It was standing room only at a press conference commemorating the North Carolina law that opened up the state to charter schools 25 years ago this month.
On June 21, 1996, the “Charter Schools Act of 1996” was ratified, authorizing the creation of public charter schools in North Carolina. This signaled a new era for school choice and education in the state. Charter schools in North Carolina are public schools that can be run either by nonprofit or for-profit organizations. Charters in the state have autonomy in certain operational areas, such as hiring and what curriculum to use.
On June 22, charter school leaders held a press conference to commemorate the anniversary, with Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden), House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain), state Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga), state Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover), state Superintendent Catherine Truitt and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.
“We are here to commemorate 25 years of charter schools here in North Carolina,” said Berger, who went on to say that growth both in the number of charter schools and enrollment is evidence parents have embraced school choice since that time.
Since the charter law was first enacted, public charter schools have steadily expanded both in the number of schools and the number of student attending them. Today around 126,000 students are enrolled in one of the state’s 200 charter schools found in 65 of the state’s 100 counties.
“There is a philosophical war underway right now,” Berger said. “It’s between bureaucrats and unions on one side, who would like to force all children into one educational system controlled by those bureaucrats, and parents and children on the other side, who wish to have a say in that child’s education.”
Berger went on to say that the “people up here today side with the parents and the students.”
“Every child — regardless of economic status, regardless of their zip code — deserves the opportunity to succeed,” said Moore. He went on to add that during the pandemic, charter schools stepped up in a lot of ways, including keeping their doors open for in-person instruction while district schools were closed.”
“When it comes to any educational opportunity, cost should never be a barrier,” Moore said. He called charter schools a “key part” to providing that opportunity.
State Superintendent Catherine Truitt echoed Moore’s comments, stating that “all parents deserve a choice” in where their child is educated and that the state has a “great track record for school choice.”
“We live in a society, in which by and large, a public school is determined by a child’s zip code,” said Truitt. “But charter schools give students and families the opportunity to move past the idea that a zip code must determine where a child attends school.”
On the same day as the anniversary of the charter school law, N.C. Department of Public Instruction announced that the Wells Fargo Principal of the Year program will be expanded to include principals of charter schools.
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson gave some brief remarks applauding the freedom charter schools afford families.
“One of the things that is the best thing about this nation is the fact that you can chart your own destiny,” said Robinson. “That does not apply anywhere more fittingly than a parent being able to decide where their child is educated.
Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) is a parent with a child at a charter school, and he told attendees that their charter “changed my own son’s education trajectory.”
Joining state elected officials were Dr. Corey DeAngelis, an education scholar affiliated with the Reason Foundation; Tim Taylor, a healthcare operations leader and former student at Arapahoe Charter School in Arapahoe; as well as a number of other charter school supporters, administrators, and both past and current students.
“They planted seeds in us when we didn’t even realize they were doing it,” said Taylor of his teachers at Arapahoe. “Some of those seeds were dedication, hard work, not giving up, choice.”
Taylor is a member of the inaugural cohort of charter school students in North Carolina, attending Arapahoe Charter School in Pamlico County when the school first opened in 1997.
One of the former students on hand was Hasana Muhammad, who had attended two Wake County charter schools: Torchlight Academy and Casa Esperanza Montessori Charter School. Another, Abigail Barbosa, attended Sallie B. Howard School of Arts & Sciences in Wilson County. She and all four of her siblings have attended the school, and she now works at Sallie B. as the elementary school principal’s assistant.
Executive director of the N.C. Coalition for Charter Schools Lindalyn Kakadelis called it a “great day for us to celebrate the first choices that North Carolinians had with charter schools.”
“This was an option for many families who could not afford any other options, because they are free public schools,” said Kakadelis.
She also confirmed that this fall the state will have around 215 charter schools but noted that it is becoming increasingly difficult for schools to find land to build their facilities on.
“We’re finding that some local boards of education are going to the town councils, and they are holding up their [charter schools] zoning permits,” said Kakadelis, who added that this was happening despite large charter school enrollment waitlists.
During the 2020–21 school year, a large number of charter schools reported waitlists that represented around 76,000 students. During the 2018–19 school year, those waitlists were around 55,000 students deep.
The prior year, in 2017–18, over 37,000 students were on waitlists at 103 of the 174 charter schools in operation that year. It was during the 2017–18 school year that charter school enrollment surpassed 100,000 students for the first time.
The12-member Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) oversees bylaws, applications, renewals and other policy areas governing public charter schools. Unlike public district schools, charters have rules that trigger closure of a school and are not bound to district boundaries, meaning that a student can choose to attend a charter anywhere in the state.
By law, public charter schools in North Carolina must accept students from all walks of life and cannot discriminate in enrollment. They are also required to follow the N.C. Standard Course of Study and administer national standardized tests. Charters also use lotteries when applications exceed seats.
Prior to the press conference, DeAngelis spoke with North State Journal, calling it “fantastic” that families have had access to public charter schools in North Carolina. He said this was a great time to talk about educational freedom given the struggles students faced over the past year.
“The educational system has prioritized protecting itself over the interests and needs of students and their families,” said DeAngelis. “Just look at North Carolina; the traditional schools have seen about a 5% enrollment decrease whereas the charter schools’ latest numbers suggest a 7% increase in enrollment relative to the previous year.”
DeAngelis has been a vocal proponent of the idea of “funding students instead of systems.”
“It’s the basic idea that the money should follow the child to wherever they are getting an education,” DeAngelis said. “After all, education funding is supposed to be for educating children, not for propping up and protecting a particular institution.
DeAngelis went on to give examples of taxpayer-funded education initiatives where the money goes to the student to choose their education providers, such as Pell grants, the G.I. Bill and Pre-K programs. He said opponents of allowing education dollars to follow K–12 students ignore that choice is the norm in higher education and Pre-K.
“Choice [in K-12] threatens a special interest that would otherwise profit from getting your children’s education dollars regardless of that choice,” said DeAngelis. “So, of course, they fight really hard against any change to the status quo because they want that power regardless of the satisfaction of the families and, as we’ve seen over the past year, regardless of whether they open their doors for business.”