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Recent Charter School Closings Spur Concerns

Tasnim Shamma

Charter schools have become a larger part of North Carolina’s public school system, since lawmakers lifted the cap on those schools after Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011. The state has about 150 charters now. But not all of them have made it.

Three charter schools in Charlotte have closed recently without making it through one whole school year.  Those closures left hundreds of kids scrambling to find new schools mid-year. They’ve also raised a lot of questions about what went wrong. 

WFAE’s Lisa Worf joins Morning Edition host Marshall Terry in the studio:

MT: Concrete Roses and StudentFirst Academy closed last year. And just last month Entrepreneur High school had its charter revoked. What happened to these schools?

LW: When you look at these three there are instances of weak oversight by the school’s board, no permanent building, mismanagement and even questionable payments. But the common denominator was low student enrollment. 

MT: Obviously you need students for schools, but it also hits their bottom line.

LW: Yes, because funding follows students. The more students a charter gets, the more money it gets.  Take Entrepreneur High. It expected to enroll 180 students this year and budgeted for that. But it got something closer to 70 students. That meant the school had to make it on less than half of the money it planned on. And it didn’t. Concrete Roses was in the same position. StudentFirst was closer to its estimate, but still a ways off. And, as I said, these schools had other problems too. 

MT: Why were they even allowed to open? 

LW: First, all the schools are reviewed by a group made up mostly of people who run charter schools. They give their recommendations to the state board of education and the state board takes them. Now, certainly, none of the three school’s applications got shining reviews. But they weren’t terrible either. Concrete Roses just squeaked by, but StudentFirst and Entrepreneur got unanimous votes. 

MT: Did the schools have to show their enrollment projections were realistic? 

LW: Projecting enrollment is tricky, especially if you’re a new school. Greg Richmond is with NACSA. It’s an organization that represents people who screen and approve charter schools. He says the question to ask is: what will you do if you don’t get all the students you expect? Here he is:

RICHMOND: A group that is good at managing a school...they will be able to tell you about how they will address their costs…how we're going to need fewer teachers, we're going to have lower expenses here. They will have an answer.  A group that will not be good at managing will not have an answer. 

LW: Concrete Roses and Entrepreneur didn’t have answers. And it wasn’t clear whether Student First was even asked that. 

MT: So is the screening process for charters rigorous enough? 

LW: That’s a question some state lawmakers are beginning to ask.  Craig Horn co-chairs the House’s K-12 education committee.  He wants a deep dive into the process.  Here he is:

HORN: We know we lost three charter schools. Let’s go back and see what were the common denominators there, if any. Let’s review our process. Where can we tighten it?  Where do we maybe need to loosen it? 

LW: And that’s interesting coming from a state lawmaker, because the General Assembly’s previous complaint was not enough charters were getting approved. That’s why state lawmakers dissolved the board that recommended Concrete Roses, Entrepreneur and Student First. The new board has approved far, fewer schools, but it did allow Entrepreneur to open after most of its board bailed and after it became clear it was one of the least prepared charter schools to open.

MT: And then there's the case of Kinston Charter Academy out in the eastern part of the state that had financial problems and had to shut down.

LW: Yes, the state auditor just released a report on that school last week. It had been around for many years, but closed in 2013, just a few days into the school year. That cost taxpayers $670,000. The audit found fiscal mismanagement and questionable payments were part of its demise.  That caught the attention of State Representative Larry Hall of Durham. He’s a Democrat. He plans to introduce a bill that would hold charter schools more accountable for how they spend their money. And the chairman of the state board of education took notice too. He wants to push lawmakers for more authority to deal with financially troubled schools. The state can already pay them on a monthly basis, instead of three times a year and freeze their accounts. 

MT: Can we expect any other abrupt closures? 

LW: It’s hard to say. There are five schools the state is keeping a close eye on now for financial reasons.  There are about a dozen schools having to cope with enrollment that’s significantly lower than they expected. 

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.