North Carolina Bill Would Allow ‘Certain Towns’ to Operate Charter Schools

Published February 16, 2018

The towns of Matthews and Mint Hill are in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) district. The Town of Matthews Board of Commissioners formed a “Mayoral Task Force on Education” in March 2016 to, according to the town’s website, “create a high performing school system responsive to the needs of families within our community.”

Task force chair Landon Dunn, an attorney, told School Reform News the board initially thought Matthews should become its own school district. To separate from CMS, however, the town would have to get a bill from the state legislature to create a separate district, and the creation of an entire new district did not seem financially feasible, the task force determined.

Innovative ‘Charter School Campus’

Dunn says the task force refocused its energies on school choice to satisfy the diverse needs of the community.

“We came up with an idea of a charter school campus,” Dunn said. “Matthews would have a business park that we would fill with charters. There could maybe be a language immersion school, classical school, and an incubator for parents who were interested in getting started on a charter school.”

The schools would share certain facilities, such as a gymnasium and auditorium, Dunn says, with the focus on providing a stable community for the children and other residents of Matthews.

North Carolina House Bill 514, introduced by Rep. Bill Brawley (R-Mecklenburg) in March 2017, would “permit certain towns to operate charter schools,” the bill’s language states. The bill would create a Charter School District for Matthews and Mint Hill and would enable the towns to give admission preference to town residents.

H.B. 514 passed in April 2017 and is under consideration by the Senate Rules Committee.

‘Parents Feel Overwhelmed’

Terry Stoops, vice president for research and director of education studies at the North Carolina-based John Locke Foundation, says parents want more control over their children’s education.

“One of the specific issues with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district is the size,” said Stoops. “Parents feel overwhelmed with an operation that has 140,000 children, … that their child is not getting the type of individual attention that they need and their child is constantly under the threat of being redistricted to another school.

“There are a lot of issues parents have with the state of CMS, [such as] controversies over curricula and the transition to a new superintendent,” Stoops said. “It makes sense that parents would be looking for additional options.”

‘A Lot of Tension’

Brawley says suburban parents have needs and wants that contrast with those of big-city dwellers.

“There has been a lot of tension between some of the small suburban towns and the metropolitan school system, for years,” Brawley said. “A lot of it centers around, as the schools have grown, attendance zones are adjusted and there are times children are not able to go to school close to their home.”

Charter School Growth

The charter school movement in North Carolina is thriving, Stoops says. In 2012, 45,000 children were enrolled in charter schools in the state. Just five years later, there are approximately 92,000 students enrolled, with continued growth expected next year.

“This year [charter school enrollment] has exceeded 100,000 students for the first time, and we have 173 schools,” Stoops said. “The number of students on wait lists is in the tens of thousands. Supply is not keeping up with demand. Charter schools in urban and suburban counties are proliferating because there is such a high demand for educational options.”

‘Large Support’ for School Choice

Brawley says educational alternatives are in demand among his constituents.

“Matthews has about 6,600 students who are in CMS schools,” Brawley said. “A lot of the Matthews students attend charter schools, private schools, religiously affiliated schools, and Matthews is also one of the strongest homeschool communities in the state. There is large support in the town of Matthews for school choice, and there are a considerable number of people who act on school choice.”

Navigating the Charter System

North Carolina law prohibits towns from spending money on schools. School systems are funded by the state and the district they fall within. Brawley says his bill would make it easier for the Matthews charter school to become a reality.

“A town, in theory, could establish a not-for-profit corporation and use that as a vehicle to build a charter school,” Brawley said. “There are two things they would not be able to do, and those are things my bill does: expend tax money on the school, both in building it and operating it if necessary, and people who live within the town of Matthews would have a preference to attend the charter school. If the school does not fill, it would be open to any child in North Carolina.”

Avoiding DOE

Charter schools are limited by a sole authorizer in North Carolina: the state’s Board of Education.  Stoops says this is an unnecessary hoop would-be charters have to jump through.

“It does raise an important point that there should be some way for town councils, nonprofits, and universities to create charter schools without having to go through the state [Board of Education],” Stoops said. “That’s been one of the issues in the past. The state board of education has gone through times when they’re not friendly to charter schools.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]writes from Alexandria, Virginia.