Despite long waitlists, NC charter school growth is flatlining. Why?

By June 18, 2024 News

There’s a puzzling paradox for public education in North Carolina right now. This past year, charter schools reported over 85,000 students on waitlists. But when school opens for the 2024-25 school year in August, there will be no increase in the number of charter schools. Veteran education reporter Ann Doss Helms, who noted the shift following more than a decade of steady growth trend data, has written about flat growth in a new WFAE story. This year, she writes, will be the first with no increase in the number of charter schools since lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap back in 2011.

Why is that?

Charter school facilities are hard to find and fund

Flat charter school growth is due to a couple of converging factors. First, state leaders closed two charter schools this year, and only two new charter schools are opening in August. Those two schools, which received final approval to open at last week’s Charter Schools Review Board meeting, are American Leadership Academy-Monroe (K-8 charter school in Monroe) and Riverside Leadership Academy (K-7 charter school in New Bern).

Still, any simple recounting of closures and openings does not capture the full story. Seven other charter schools were originally slated to open in 2024, and all of those schools ended up requesting a delay year. As others have noted, it has become increasingly difficult to open a charter school. Why? For many charter schools, finding and funding a facility is the single most challenging obstacle—and it is much harder than it needs to be.

We’ll cover much more around facility challenges in the coming months, but parents and other charter supporters who care about charter growth need to understand the gravity of the problem and how it’s impacting the charter movement. Unlike district schools, North Carolina charter schools–which are also freepublic, and open to all students–do not receive any separate facility funding. Instead, they must pay for their own facilities through loans, grants, operating funds, or other sources.

Lindalyn Kakadelis, the Coalition’s executive director, outlined the dilemma for the state’s charter sector:

Unfortunately, the number of North Carolina charter schools next year will stay flat for the first time since 2011, when lawmakers removed the 100-school cap. No growth stands in direct opposition to what the state’s parents want. The best measures of unmet demand, charter school waitlists show more families than ever want access to a charter school for their child. Yet outdated and unfair policies are making it harder for new schools to find and finance facilities. That fixable problem, and not a decline in demand, is why we will see no growth in the number of schools for 2024-25.

Other states aren’t waiting to act. Nevada lawmakers recently established a $100 million revolving loan fund managed by the State Infrastructure Bank (with $15 million in public dollars and another $85 million from private philanthropy partners) to provide charters with facilities loans. Five other states have revolving loan programs “that self-replenish by using interest and principal payments from one loan to make new loans to other charter schools,” notes the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in a state policy snapshot. It’s a great model for North Carolina to consider as well.

 

Kristen Blair

Author Kristen Blair

Kristen Blair is the communications director for the North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools.

More posts by Kristen Blair