CHAROLOTTE, N.C. -- Charter schools are expected to account for one-third of all public school enrollment growth in Mecklenburg County next year, and the charter boom could surge in 2013.

As Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools strives to maintain the confidence of a sprawling, diverse county, growing numbers of families are opting for independently run, tuition-free schools that cater to a niche.

Projections show CMS gaining about 2,000 students next year, an increase of about 1.4 percent. About 1,000 more Mecklenburg students will attend charters, a 12 percent jump.

CMS serves about 80 percent of Mecklenburg s school-age children, but its market share is likely to slip below that level for the first time next year.
The 2012-13 projections only account for growth in current charters, many of which are expanding the grades they serve.

Meanwhile, people are lining up to open new Charlotte-area charters in 2013-14, taking advantage of a state law that allows more new schools and lets existing ones grow faster. Statewide, 61 applications for new charters landed by Friday s deadline. An early tally done Friday morning, when only about half the forms were in, showed eight from the Charlotte region, said Joel Medley, director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools.

With 8,000 students on charter waiting lists, Mecklenburg has more pent-up demand than any other county, said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a Raleigh-based school choice group.

I really do believe that you re going to see more and more families, particularly working middle-class, working-poor, choosing these options that heretofore haven t been available, Allison said.

Obviously it says parents are making decisions with their feet, said Eddie Goodall of Weddington, executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association and a former state senator.

Last year state lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap on charters and allowed existing charters to expand enrollment by 20 percent a year instead of 10 percent.

Charters, introduced to North Carolina in 1996, are tuition-free public schools that don t report to school districts. Created to spur innovation and give families options, they work much like magnets, offering specialized themes and using an admission lottery when there are more applicants than seats. Unlike traditional public schools, charters accept students from across county lines. They don t have to offer transportation or meals, and they don t get county construction money.

The Charlotte area s current charter slate ranges from a school for gifted students to one serving high schoolers on the brink of failure. Groups seeking charters are proposing themes from technology to sports science.

Take a number

The Charlotte region has a strong tradition of school choice. CMS offers a long menu of magnets, with almost 19,000 enrolled. Roughly 19,000 students attend private schools, and a steadily growing home-school movement served more than 6,000 kids at last count.

But home-schooling requires a stay-home parent, and private tuition can reach $20,000 a year.

You have every option on God s green Earth there in Mecklenburg County if you re wealthy, Allison said. Charters reach a population that cares about education but can t afford those choices, he says.

Charters have proven especially popular in the Lake Norman area, where CMS schools tend to be crowded and private schools are sparse.

Allison says the state s longest waiting list for a charter school is 3,200 at Community School of Davidson, which has 1,000 students in grades K-10. Now that the school has finished its 2012-13 lottery it s adding 11th grade next year the list is actually up to 3,400, says Kevin Green, director of business management.

I just think people are looking for alternatives in education, Green said. Community School of

Davidson uses the Basic School model, which emphasizes arts, math and languages. The elementary, middle and high school portions won t get any bigger than 500 each, he said, because the small setting builds relationships.

Corvian Community School, a private school in Huntersville, recently won fast-track charter status, allowing it to start taking public students next year. Stacey Haskell founded the school two years ago, charging $4,000 a year and always planning to convert to a charter.

Her motivation? Her daughter was No. 503 on the kindergarten waiting list for Community School, which serves as the model for Corvian.

I know how it feels to have that ugly lottery number, Haskell said.

Corvian, which will have 88 students in K-3 next year, will eventually expand to 440 in K-12. Corvian got more than 400 applicants for the 88 spots.

Most would-be charter operators have waited for a rare opening and hoped to get a nod from the state. Corvian and Community School were able to get a head start by opening as private schools and converting when their charter was approved.

Charters aren t easy

North Carolina s charters are concentrated in and around cities because they have the population and available buildings to support such schools, Medley says. Many open in converted big box stores; if the school flourishes, the board may follow up by raising money to build or expand.

Getting a charter requires that a board incorporate as a nonprofit with a mission, an education plan and a budget and marketing plan to support it, Medley says: It truly takes quite a bit of skill.

CMS, the state s second-largest district after Wake County, has about 10 percent of the state s traditional public school enrollment, but Mecklenburg students account for 18 percent of all N.C. charter students.

In Charlotte, corporate donors and affluent families supplement the public money that many charters get. Some tap parents to donate for technology or construction.

Wells Fargo, Bank of America and The Charlotte Observer recently hosted an annual fundraiser at the NASCAR Hall of Fame for KIPP Charlotte, a charter that pushes a college-bound culture for low-income and minority students. The 300 who attended were urged to pledge $1,000 to $25,000 a year to sponsor school supplies, teachers or classrooms.

Until this year, the only way new charters became available was when one of the 100 closed voluntarily or had its charter revoked. That has happened with 44 schools, Medley said.

Now there s no limit on new charters, but an advisory panel still reviews applications for quality. A charter could be rejected, for instance, if the business plan didn t support the educational mission, Medley said. The state Board of Education makes the final decision on who gets and keeps charters.

This year s test scores could trigger closure for charters that have three consecutive years of weak performance on state exams, because of a new academic requirement passed in 2009-10, Medley said.

National research has found that charters, like traditional public schools, have a relatively small number of extremely high and extremely low performers, with most clustered in the middle. Those in the Charlotte region are no exception.

The appeal is often the way they can tailor their approach to education, such as keeping schools and/or class sizes small. Charters also have more flexibility to hire and fire teachers, extend school hours or operate on a different calendar.

Three or four are doing quite well, there s some in the middle and some that have significant challenges, said Bill Anderson of the nonprofit research and advocacy group MeckEd. His group recently started reviewing and posting data on charter schools.

They re clearly part of the solution, he said, but it s not the answer to all the challenges that are faced by public schools.

Impact on CMS

Competition for students and dollars can create tension between charters and traditional public schools.

CMS must pass along a per-pupil share of county money for each Mecklenburg student enrolled in charters. The 2012-13 request for $355.9 million from the county includes just over $20 million that would be funneled to charters, up from just under $17 million this year. Charters get state money directly from the state.

In general, charters and regular public schools must accept all students. But charters have limited enrollment, while CMS nonmagnet schools often end up adding trailers to stretch the capacity of schools in booming areas. And the lack of busing and meals at some charters can screen out low-income families.

Rhonda Lennon, who represents the north suburbs on the CMS board, said she has no problem with the proliferation of charters: I think it should be a good thing that we have competition and we need to do a good job.

Charter proponents like to point out that their schools aren t competing with public schools.

As Medley likes to say: They are public schools, supported by public dollars, serving public students for the public benefit.

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