Raleigh, N.C. — On a recent sunny afternoon, Winnie Lameck pointed from the back steps of Southern Wake Academy, across an empty recess yard, to a stand of trees where construction on a permanent building would begin next year.
Lameck, a math teacher, has been with the charter high school since its founding in 2000, through a move from its original campus, the construction of two pre-fabricated buildings and the opening of a middle school two years ago. A North Carolina State University graduate, Lameck said she was attracted to Southern Wake Academy because of its small class sizes and the opportunity to work more directly with parents and students.
"I think that's one of the most important things, making sure that you're being effective and efficient in the classroom as far as helping the students, making sure that you're reaching each student, meeting their needs." Lameck said. "This small-classroom environment gives us the opportunity to really get to know the students ... I have an opportunity to get through a lesson and an opportunity to assess students where they are, their understanding individually. In a traditional setting, it's almost impossible to get around to all the kids and teach the content that you need to get to."
The virtues of smaller class sizes are a frequent touchstone for those operating or sending their children to charter schools, publicly funded schools that are run by private nonprofit boards. Such schools, which often have been at the center of political controversy and are still not always well understood by the general public, are a fast-growing part of the state's public education system. They are seen as both part of the state's public school infrastructure and competitors to traditional public schools, sharing the same pool of state and local funding.
GOP lifts cap; more charters to come
North Carolina legislators passed the law allowing for charter schools in 1996, originally capping the total number at 100 statewide.
Although Republicans and Democrats can be found on both sides of the charter school debate, Republicans in North Carolina have been much more sympathetic to school choice advocates. After the GOP took over the General Assembly in 2011, the state erased the cap on the number of charter schools. Currently, there are 127 charter schools in North Carolina, but that number is set to rise over the next two years.
There are 26 charter schools that are scheduled to receive final approval to open in August 2014. Those 26 were winnowed from an original pool of 150 that had submitted letters of intent a year ago.
This fall, 176 potential schools submitted such letters. Administrators in the state's Office of Charter Schools and outside experts expect far fewer to ultimately win approval. Issues with financing, unsteady academic proposals and other problems force applicants to drop out of the process or cause state panels to reject their applications. One school already has withdrawn, balking at a $500 application fee.
Still, public school systems, which turn over millions of dollars to privately run charter schools every year, are watching the potential explosion in growth warily, worried that new charters will drain away needed resources. Even those who may be described as charter school advocates say rapid growth may not well serve the community of alternative schools.
"There's a huge risk with all the pent-up supply that the state will approve more schools than are qualified to do well," said Bryan Hassel, co-director of Public Impact, a firm that consults with nonprofits and school districts on how to shape successful schools.
Keeping tabs on charters
"Charter schools are public schools, serving public students with public dollars for the public's benefit," said Joel Medley, director of the Office of Charter Schools in the Department of Public Instruction.
Even though charter schools have been operating in the state for more than 15 years, many parents and taxpayers don't understand how they function, he said.
"We still get calls asking how much it costs to send a child to a charter school," Medley said.
Unlike private or parochial schools, charter schools cannot charge tuition. Rather, charters get a per-pupil share of the state and county tax dollars that would have paid to educate that student in a traditional public school. This calculation is controversial – and the subject of several lawsuits – with school systems saying they're ceding tax dollars they can't afford and charters suspicious they're not always getting what they're due.
"We still don't have a really accurate accounting of that," said Carrol Reed, a former public school English teacher and principal who is now the director of Southern Wake Academy.
Funding for charters differs from their traditional counterparts in a number of ways. They do not receive lottery funding. Until recently, school districts were not allowed to help with building expenses. Even though that prohibition has been lifted, few, if any, public school systems help charters with capital expenses. That means charter schools have to rent or build space using a portion of the per-pupil funding they get from the local school districts.
"They see us as competition," Reed said. "We don't really see ourselves as competition because we can't offer nearly the kinds of programs and opportunities that these traditional, large high schools do. We don't have a huge library, we don't have the technology. We can't afford it."
Some charter schools have foundations that help with building expenses. Others get help from national companies contracted to run the school. But most, such as Southern Wake, have to balance rent versus teacher salaries and other costs. In Southern Wake's case, that prompted the school to opt for rather drab-looking prefab buildings that serve their purpose on the inside but are less than inviting on the outside. Only now, with student population climbing over 300 for the first time next year, is the school in a position to build a permanent facility from the ground up.
"That really will help us in recruiting and showing that Southern Wake Academy is here to stay, that we're a viable option long-term and we can offer a facility that reflects the same kind of quality as Wake County," Reed said.
Southern Wake Academy's slow-growing approach is one that regulators would like to see duplicated. New charters most often get in trouble, say experts, when their actual enrollment fails to meet ambitious projections. Fewer students means less revenue and painful choices that can diminish a school's planned program.
"We need some kind of evidence that their initial enrollment is likely to occur," said Baker Mitchell, the head of a firm that runs two charter schools and a member of the North Carolina Charter Schools Advisory Board.
The board, which is made up almost exclusively of educators and administrators with ties to charter schools, vets applications for new schools and renewals for existing schools. The final authority to approve or deny an application still rests with the state school board.
While the school board has long had an advisory panel to help sort through charter school applications, Mitchell was speaking during the first meeting of a newly reconstituted advisory board tasked with handling the expected growth in charter applications. During that meeting, panel members were debating various requirements meant to weed out potential charters with realistic business plans from those set to bite off more than they can chew.
"If you're saying, 'I'm going to have 1,000 students. I've got my budget set on that. I'm depending on that for my facility. I'm going to rent this big, huge building,' you'd better have some evidence that you're actually going to get 1,000 students," Mitchell said, pushing for a requirement that would have proposed schools show actual letters of commitment from parents who want to attend. "Maybe that would dissuade people from starting with these grandiose plans that get in trouble to start more modestly."
Since 1997, 47 charters schools have closed, most due to financial problems or governance issues. The most recent of those was Kinston Charter Academy, which closed as regulators were getting ready to shut it down. According to Medley, the school had received warnings from the state over both academic and financial issues.
Charter school critics point to failed charters as a reason to be cautious in expanding their numbers. Boosters say it is one of the strengths of the charter school structure – failing schools are held accountable and, if need be, closed.
Only one North Carolina charter school has ever been closed for purely academic reasons. That school, Elizabeth Grinton Charter School in Wilkes County, wasn't in compliance with rules concerning "exceptional children," according to a summary from the state. News reports from the time said there were specific problems with how students were evaluated.
Charters have always been subject to many of the same testing requirements that public schools have to meet. In 2009, the state put rules in place that require charters to be closed if they don't meet state standards in two out of three years. Those standards say that either 60 percent of students must be on grade level or that 60 percent of students have made a grade-level's worth of progress in the past year.
That second standard is meant to allow for schools that serve struggling or special needs students, such as Dynamic Community Charter School, which is slated to open next year if it gets final approval.
Reed said tighter state standards help prod Southern Wake Academy to refocus its mission. Originally, he said, the school had said it would target at-risk students, typically those who had experienced suspensions, low grades or other problems in traditional schools. Starting in 2006, when he first became director, Reed said Southern Wake refocused on students who still needed and wanted extra attention but who planned to go to college.
Because Southern Wake is a public school, it cannot turn away students. But officials can change how they market the schools and where they actively recruit students.
"We as a matter of survival had to say that our recruiting effort would be aimed at kids who want to go to college," Reed said. "We don't differentiate wanting to go to a community college or starting there ... but at least the student has given some thought to that."
That said, Reed added, the school has a high percentage of children with individual education plans, those who have particular academic needs. Many of them, he said, are kids with traits on the autism spectrum who are less likely to be overwhelmed or encounter bullying at Southern Wake than they are at a larger high school.
Not all charters are alike
"Every charter school is different," said Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University who is a nationally known expert in school reform.
The charter structure, he said, "is a governance notion" meant to give school administrators the flexibility to try different approaches to education. Different schools use that flexibility in different ways.
At Southern Wake, the school day is built to give students time for volunteer work and outside jobs required by the school's program. Students have to do periodic portfolio presentations that show both what they're learning in the classroom and on the job.
Aspen Harris, a senior at Southern Wake, smiles when asked about his last portfolio check in.
"It was chill," he said, standing beside a giant map of the world in the school's hallway. "I had everything I was supposed to, so my portfolio came out well."
Harris works at McDonald's and is required to show the school his pay stubs and report on his work there. "It's teaching me manners toward customers and everything. It's teaching me to be responsible."
The founders of Envision Science Academy, a charter hoping to open in Wake Forest next summer, want to infuse their curriculum with science and technology lessons. Starting in kindergarten, said Monica Cutno, the school's board chairwoman, students will be exposed to science education every day.
"That's something that may be lacking in other schools," she said.
Envision also plans to offer Mandarin Chinese language instruction and have children move from classroom to classroom as early as kindergarten, depending on what subject they have.
"You'll have teachers who teach students in subjects they really have a passion for and are strong in," Cutno said, contrasting to traditional elementary schools where a single classroom teacher handles the bulk of instruction for one class.
Both Southern Wake and Envision are "independent" charter schools, those run exclusively by a local board.
Other schools hire a charter management organizations, often called CMOs or EMOs depending on whether they are for profit or nonporfit, to run the school. Proposed charters have to note whether they plan to hire such an organization on their application.
"We're going to attract students and parents who want to be involved in their child's education," said Allen Taylor, one of the organizers of Cardinal Charter Academy.
Cardinal plans to open its first school in Cary next year and has submitted letters of intent to open schools in Knightdale and north Raleigh the following year. Cardinal has hired Charter Schools USA, a Florida-based company, to run its schools. Charter Schools USA already manages charters in Iredell and Cabarrus counties.
While the local board has control over some decisions, including whether to dump Charter Schools USA entirely, the management company will handle everything from financing school construction to hiring and paying teachers. While there are some variations from location to location, most Charter Schools USA schools require uniforms and emphasize a back-to-basics approach to education.
Taylor said his own child is not elementary school age yet.
"Really, my incentive in doing all this is really around the educational achievement we saw Charter Schools USA provide," he said, noting that his niece attended a school run by the company in the Atlanta area.
Somewhere between the franchise model of Charter Schools USA and the true independents are organizations like KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program, Medley said. The national KIPP office offers curriculum and guidance, but more of the organizational tasks are handled by the school districts.
Another variation of the charter school theme are virtual charters, which are designed to offer students instruction at home via the Internet. A thorny, long-running case involving K12 education is on appeal to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
No virtual charters are set to open during the 2014 school year, but a few of the letters of intent submitted for the 2015 school year involve virtual learning.
"You would have a facilitator, someone there to make sure the child stays on track," said Gail Hall, who is trying to organize The North Carolina Cyber Academy, one of those 2015 hopefuls.
Hall said she was motivated by problems getting her child the specific instruction she needed to keep pace in third grade.
"We ended up buying $4,000 worth of tutoring we couldn't afford to make sure she got some specialized education my husband and I couldn't do," she said.
It's worth noting that there is a North Carolina Virtual Public School, but it is a "supplemental service." No student can sign up to just go to the virtual public school. Rather, they can take specific classes their school might not offer.
Questions raised about innovation, success
Among the early selling points of charter schools was that they would be innovators, places where new educational methods were developed and then disseminated to other schools. But with North Carolina's charter cap lifted, many of the schools that are best positioned to take advantage of the opportunity to expand are those affiliated with charter management organizations, which are replicating models first tried elsewhere.
"Innovation is really about results," said Jonathan Hage, founder and president of Charter Schools USA, whose father and wife were public school teachers.
Hage says his company is taking what it has learned about teaching students, including those from low-wealth backgrounds, and applying it to other student populations. Charter Schools USA regularly trumpets results it says show students in its schools do better than those in the public system.
"Today, more and more what innovation looks like is successful replication," Hage said.
Western Michigan University's Miron scoffs at that idea. "They keep saying replication, but replication of what," he asked. "Yes, they are replicating a model, but is it a successful model?"
For many, there is a fundamental question surrounding charter schools: Do they perform better that traditional public schools overall?
A national study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, at Stanford University found "there is a wide variance in the quality of the nation's several thousand charter schools with, in the aggregate, students in charter schools not faring as well as students in traditional public schools."
A report that specifically focused on North Carolina found a mixed bag of results. The study suggested charter students, particularly those from low-income families, saw bigger gains in reading than their public school counterparts but performed little differently in math. The latest data used in the report was from 2009.
Experts say it would be a mistake to generalize across any group of charter schools.
"On average, the conclusion is that charter schools are no better than public schools. Some individual schools are better, some are worse," said Helen Ladd, a Duke University professor and nationally recognized expert on charter schools.
"There's no magic bullet here," Ladd said. "There's nothing about this organizational structure that guarantees that charter schools will be better than traditional public schools."
Another question is whether students at independent charters, such as Southern Wake Academy, do better or worse than their peers at schools run by charter management organizations, such as Charter Schools USA.
"It is an important question, but it hasn't been studied sufficiently," Miron said. One study suggested independent charters in Michigan did better than their management company-run counterparts. Those results came in the other way, he said, when schools in New Orleans were studied.
Is there a saturation point?
Charter school quality is an increasingly urgent question and not just because their numbers are set to grow. While school choices are sparse in some areas of the state, charters are already a significant portion of the public education scene in North Carolina's urban areas.
More than 12 percent of public school students in Durham County attend charter schools. As a result, $14.9 million of the county's tax dollars, plus millions more from the state, goes to the county's charters, said Aaron Beaulieu, the district's chief financial officer.
While the number of students attending charter schools requires constant attention from the district, Beaulieu said there's no doubt they take a strain off the traditional public system.
"If we got that money back, and those students, we would have a lot of needs that would come back with that," he said.
What's less clear is whether each student who moves to a charter represents a net financial gain or loss for the district. Beaulieu said Durham has never been able to calculate such a number, and he's not aware of any studies that have.
Leanne Winner, a lobbyist for the North Carolina School Boards Association, points out that Durham at one point had lobbied for a "local cap" on the number of charter schools that would be allowed to open. She said some districts worry they might hit a saturation point.
Pamlico County Schools, for example, lobbied the state not to approve Arapaho Charter School's expansion into high school. There were too few students to support two high schools, the district argued. Ultimately, the legislature cleared the way for Arapaho to begin offering high school classes, although its expansion would not be as rapid as first proposed.
Medley, of the state charter school office, said there's no hard and fast rule on when a district might hit a charter school saturation point.
The bigger problem, he said, is if a number of charters cluster around one particular community within a county. Since charter school funding depends on how many students a school has, offering more seats than available students is a recipe for problems.
"If everyone decides they're going to target Fuquay-Varina, for example, you might have a situation where you're setting up those charter schools to fail," he said.
Others argue that charters hurt traditional systems in other ways. Charter schools are not required to offer subsidized lunches – although many do – or transportation services. For some families, those are barriers to entry that they can't cross.
While charter schools have to take all those who apply, experts including Miron said problem students are often pushed back in to the public system. That's a charge that charter school advocates deny.
Moving forward with more charters
Charters and public schools are not necessarily at odds.
North Carolina lawmakers on the General Assembly's Program Evaluation Oversight Committee recently heard a report on the Douglas County, Colo., school district that coordinates closely with local charters.
"The attitude in Douglas County is that there are neighborhood schools and district (charter) schools, and they're all the same," said Carol Shaw, a member of the legislature's program evaluation staff. "It's a very different relationship."
In North Carolina, aside from the occasional transfer of information and annual allotment of funding, there is little interaction between charters and local school districts.
Reed, the director of Southern Wake Academy, said he sees ways in which school districts and charter schools can work more closely together. For example, charters typically lack specialists to help with professional development. So, for example, his math teachers had to learn on their own how to implement new Common Core math standards.
In Durham, schools spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said the district is looking at a potential partnership that could co-locate a specialty public school in the same building as a public charter school.
"I'd say it's more than a live-and-let-live relationship," Pearson said, adding that the school district does its best to persuade parents to stick with Durham County Public Schools.
"We can't ignore the fact that we have families who have choices in this county," she said.
That competition, she said, drove the district to redesign its middle schools when administrators noticed that many students were leaving for charters in grades 6, 7 and 8, but returning during the high school years.
As more charter schools open, Medley's state staff will have more work to do, both keeping tabs on existing schools as well as sifting through an increasing number of applications and making sure new schools get a good start.
"We stay in constant communication with the charter school after they have received final approval," Medley said. "If we notice problems, we will go out and perform 'Ready to Open' visits."
Once schools open, they receive constant site visits.
Still, the state isn't in a position to help charter schools manage through their problems, said Hassel of Public Impact. As the state approves more schools, he said, it should think about closing poorer performing charters.
"You have to think about your main quality lever closing and replacing inferior schools," he said.