State approval doesn't end battle over new charter schools

The State Board of Education voted Thursday to approve nine new charter schools, the first to be allowed to open after lawmakers lifted a 100-school cap on charters last year.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The State Board of Education voted Thursday to approve nine new charter schools, the first to be allowed to open after lawmakers lifted a 100-school cap on charters last year.

Twenty-seven groups had submitted so-called fast-track applications, which would allow them to open this fall, and the North Carolina Public Charter School Advisory Council helped officials whittle that field to nine proposals, including three in the Triangle.

Area public school officials have come out against two of the new charter schools – Research Triangle High School at RTP in Durham County and the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School in Orange County – saying they would divert money from school districts.

The battle continued even after the state put its stamp of approval on the new schools.

"Now that the cap is off, there will be all kinds of interesting ideas and characters coming to North Carolina to try to get a grab at public money," said Natalie Beyer, a member of the Durham County Board of Education. "This charter isn't needed in Durham."

Officials with Durham Public Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have expressed concern that the charter schools will cherry-pick top students, leaving the district to bear the burden of handling students who live in poverty or don't speak English at home.

Pamela Blizzard, one of the founders of Research Triangle High, said such fears are unfounded, noting the school plans to accept numerous minority students.

"Our school became this flash point for the whole discussion of what charters should be doing, could be doing (and) are doing," Blizzard said. "I think it’s ironic that our school became that because ours is going to be one of the most diverse schools."

"Our school is open to all students whose parents want to send them," said Angela Lee, a board member of the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School. "We will hopefully work closely with the district so that there is balance."

Blizzard said she looks forward to working with public schools in Durham on projects.

"I think, when things die down, we can all sit down and have some wonderful conversations about collaboration," she said.

The school district wants to collaborate, Beyer said, adding that she wishes the charter school ideas could be applied within existing public schools.

"We’ve welcomed the founders of RTHS to come and meet with us and work within the innovative programs we have going on in Durham County schools," she said. "We have space. We have willingness to innovate. Let’s work together."

State board Chairman Bill Harrison said he's sensitive to the concerns of school districts, but the new charter schools meet the criteria for approval the state has established.

Harrison said he plans to ask the advisory council to design a more stringent framework for determining innovation and probability of success to rank charter school proposals.

"No cap means no cap, but it also doesn’t mean anything goes," he said.

Triangle Math and Science Academy in Wake County is the third area charter school. Local school leaders took no position on the school.

In addition to the three Triangle schools, the board approved the following charter schools: Bear Grass Charter School in Martin County, Cornerstone Charter Academy and High Point College Preparatory Academy in Guilford County, Corvian Community School in Mecklenburg County, North East Carolina Preparatory School in Edgecombe County and Water's Edge Village School in Currituck County.