North Carolina Faces Opposition to Charters

Published August 1, 2007

Recently I had the pleasure of attending an outstanding student presentation of the musical West Side Story at the North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA), a charter school in Winston-Salem.

The school has an enrollment of 1,000 high school and college students. It is the University of North Carolina’s conservatory for the arts, dedicated entirely to the professional training of high school and college students possessing exceptional talents in the performing, visual, and moving image arts.

I have followed NCSA’s development for many years, and West Side Story was just one more achievement in a long line of successes from that school.

NCSA is a well-known conservatory, and the productions from its departments of dance, design, drama, filmmaking, and music are very popular.

Considering the fact that NCSA was the first state-supported residential school of its kind in the nation (it opened in 1965), and its long history of several thousand successful public productions, it is difficult to justify the state’s efforts to limit the number of charter schools in North Carolina to only 100.

Students March

Under North Carolina’s charter school law, passed in 1996, any individual, group, or nonprofit corporation can apply to open a charter school. The state, the University of North Carolina, and local boards of education may grant charters. Local and university-chartered schools must be approved by the state board of education.

The number of charters is capped at five per district per year, with a maximum of 100 charter schools allowed statewide. Currently, about 29,000 students are enrolled in North Carolina charter schools. With more than 5,000 students on waiting lists (according to the state Department of Instruction), the cap has thwarted the opening of many charter schools.

These schools, similar to those in other states, are open to all, receive public money, and don’t charge tuition. They are run by private boards instead of locally elected school boards, and administrators don’t have to follow all the regulations imposed on traditional public schools. Nationwide, there are 3,950 charter schools in 39 states and the District of Columbia. Just over a million students attend these schools.

In North Carolina, charter school tuition is paid by the state–an amount equal to the average yearly cost per student. In 2006-07, the tuition was about $7,000. No public funds are provided for construction.

Since 1996, many unsuccessful attempts have been made to increase or remove North Carolina’s charter school cap. On May 2, hundreds of charter school students and parents marched to the North Carolina Legislative Building in Raleigh to demand legislators lift the 100 school cap. The march was organized by Americans for Prosperity-North Carolina.

Legislators Delay

Unfortunately, it appears the legislature will again stifle demands for choice. In early May, House budget-writers recommended a bill that would allow the Department of Public Instruction to “study” charter schools over the next two years, without lifting the cap.

On the surface, it would appear North Carolina is an ideal place to achieve choice in K-12 education. Unlike 34 other states, it has no collective bargaining law. Consequently, much of the unions’ clout has been limited. Also unlike many other states, North Carolina’s constitution is free from legal restrictions on choice.

“There is no better place or time to release the marketplace of ideas and provide choice in every aspect of education,” said David Roland, an attorney for the Institute for Justice (IJ) and author of the study “School Choice and the North Carolina Constitution,” released in April 2006 by IJ and the North Carolina Education Alliance.

Establishment Resists

Although there is no state law enabling teacher unions to engage in collective bargaining with local school boards (thus limiting union power), the local teacher associations, with the help of their state and national chapters, do possess considerable power in local and state politics. Many view these associations as the chief impediment to providing real choice for students.

But it’s not just the teachers. It is the entire education establishment, all members of which profit from the government school monopoly.

In his excellent study, “Ten Years of Excellence: Why Charter Schools Are Good for North Carolina,” Terry Stoops, education policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, offers several suggestions for expanding charter schools in North Carolina.

According to Stoops, charters should be unlimited. Successful charter schools should be allowed to franchise themselves. Every student should be entitled to pro rata tuition to attend any school, public or private. The state should revise the tests used to measure academic achievement and should remove current teacher certification requirements.

Stoops also says the state should permit counties to contribute to their charter schools’ capital needs and should allow State Education Lottery funds to flow proportionately to students in charter schools. Finally, the state should require that all proposed charter school regulations be approved by a majority of the boards of directors of all existing charter schools before going into effect.

The state’s students would benefit greatly from such an expansion of freedom to attend charter schools. Isn’t that what the law should be for?

Richard G. Neal ([email protected]) writes from North Carolina.

For more information …

“School Choice and the North Carolina Constitution,” by David Roland, published by the Institute for Justice and the North Carolina Education Alliance in April 2006, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #21463.

“Ten Years of Excellence: Why Charter Schools Are Good for North Carolina,” by Terry Stoops, published on May 2, 2007 by the John Locke Foundation, is also available through PolicyBot™. Search for document #21464.