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NC Opens School Year With More Charters And Vouchers

David T. Foster, III
Charlotte Observer

North Carolina’s education landscape looks different again this year as students prepare to head back to school.  The state now has 160 charters, including two new online charter schools.  These are public schools given more flexibility than traditional public schools. Also, the NC Supreme Court has given the go ahead to vouchers for private schools. 

WFAE’s Lisa Worf joins Morning Edition host Marshall Terry. 

MT: How many new charter schools will North Carolina have this year?

LW: Every year since the 100 school cap was lifted in 2011, a bunch of new charters have opened.  This year there will be 16 new ones, including four in Mecklenburg County.  The state’s Office of Charter Schools has had to hire more people to help oversee all the new schools.  But they’re starting this year with a staff of just six, after the division’s director and a couple others left.

MT: So those few people will be overseeing a record number of charter schools.

LW: Yes, the office does plan to hire people, but it’s a job that comes with a lot of pressure.  For one, the Senate is perpetually unhappy with charter school office because they feel its advisory group doesn’t recommend enough charter schools. And this year, the Senate is trying to extract the Office of Charter schools from the Department of Public Instruction and put it directly under the State Board of Education. 

MT: Would that change anything?

LW: It’s hard to say.  State Superintendent June Atkinson says it wouldn’t. 

MT: Enrollment is a big concern with new charters, since a school’s funding is tied to how many students it has. In the last couple years, three new charters in Charlotte closed partly because they didn’t get enough students.  How’s enrollment looking for this year?

LW: Right now it’s still somewhat of a question mark. The state doesn’t get a final number until at least the 20th day of school. But the state took the last enrollment tally in July.  And all but four of the brick-and-mortar charter schools had reached their expected enrollment then.  Those were within 75-percent of their goal, except for Stewart Creek High School in West Charlotte which takes students who have dropped out or those at risk of doing so.  But a lot could’ve change between July and now.

MT: Now, North Carolina will have something called virtual charter schools this year.

LW: Yes, these are charter schools where students take all of their classes online.  They draw students from across the state.  And they’ve been controversial, since they’ve had a high rate of students withdrawing from them in other states.  A state law created a pilot program for two online charters this year. They’re limited to 1500 students each this first year. Both of them say they’ve pretty much reached that already. 

MT: Where are their students coming from?

LW: At least one school, North Carolina Virtual Academy, reports 60-percent are from traditional public schools and 30-percent from home schools.  That home school number is important since those are students who are new to the state’s payroll this year.  Here’s the school’s director Joel Medley.   

MEDLEY: We knew we’d always be able to draw a strong number from public schools.  The home school number is low compared to what you may see nationally.  But overall, we’re quite pleased with the broad approach that we receive. 

LW: Medley used to be the head of the state’s charter school office, but took this job at the virtual school this summer. 

MT: The state offered vouchers for private schools last year, but now the program has the seal of the North Carolina Supreme Court. How many kids will be using vouchers this year?

LW: Yes, after more than a year in limbo the Supreme Court gave vouchers the go ahead.  This year about 26-hundred low-income families will use them.  That’s about double last year’s number. That breaks out to about 11-million dollars the state will spend on vouchers this year.  But it could be more. Both the House and Senate want to add another 7-million dollars to the program this year….If that ends up in the budget, the state will issue more after the start of school.

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.