Despite local opposition, N.C. charter board clears two new Wake County schools

By , NC POLICY WATCH

The state Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) on Monday unanimously stood by its approval of two charters in Wake County, despite public opposition from leaders in North Carolina’s largest school district.

CSAB members said Wake officials’ concerns about Wake County Preparatory Academy and North Raleigh Charter Academy reflect “philosophical” differences about the value of charters, rather than fear of school re-segregation or charter saturation.

Steven Walker, vice chairman of the CSAB, said Wake officials have taken the position that if “parents aren’t making the choice we like, maybe we shouldn’t let them have the choice.”

“I think maybe that’s where we are with this,” Walker said.

Also in play, Walker said, Wake County voters approved a $548 million bond referendum for school construction in 2018, and a 10 percent property tax increase this month that will give the school district an additional $45 million.

“Wake County’s ADM went up 42 students last year,” Walker said.

CSAB was asked to take a second look at the applications of Wake County Preparatory Academy and North Raleigh Charter Academy after the State Board of Education (SBE) received a letter from Wake officials asking the SBE to deny any of the five charters the CSAB recommended for approval in Wake County.

The SBE approved three of the five Wake charters on Friday, but asked the CSAB to review applications for Wake Prep and North Raleigh.

The applications for the two schools will now go back to the SBE for its consideration at its July board meeting.

Wake’s arguments against additional charters mirror those of school leaders across North Carolina who contend charters rob traditional public schools of resources and contribute to re-segregation.

In smaller school districts, the proliferation of charters has had a devastating impact, forcing some to close schools with low enrollment.

Leaders of the Wake County Public School System said even the state’s largest district has begun to feel the impact of charters, whose numbers in North Carolina have nearly doubled since state lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap in 2011.

“In all these applications, it is not difficult to see how the proposed charters would increase de facto segregation, decrease efficient utilization of public facilities and add no significant variety or innovative instructional programs in a county where parents already understand and strongly support traditional schools,” Wake County Board of Education Chairman Jim Martin and Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore wrote in a June 3 letter to the SBE. “Charter saturation is an appropriate way to describe this situation.”

Martin and Moore noted that there are 10 schools within five miles of the sites in northeastern Wake County that are proposed for Wake Prep. And five of the 10 schools are charters, which enroll a combined 4,000 pupils.

Walker pushed back against the notion that the area is saturated with schools. He said nearby charters have long wait-lists with thousands of students waiting for a chance to attend.

“I’m not sure saturation is the problem,” Walker added.

Martin and Moore also pointed to “de facto segregation” in the charter boom, noting that white and Asian enrollment in the five charters near Wake Prep and North Raleigh academies exceed 80 percent. White and Asian enrollment in the nearby traditional public schools is 50 percent.

Hilda Parler, a former CSAB member and president of Wake Prep’s board, said Wake Prep has agreed to enroll fewer students and to weight its lottery more heavily in favor of economically disadvantaged students to address the concerns of Wake officials.

“We are not concerned about our application, but to address the concerns of others my board has worked diligently with Charter One [its charter management firm] to determine what enrollment level we could go to and still be financially viable while remaining true to our mission, vision and values,” Parler said.

Wake Prep would cap enrollment at 915 during the 2021-22 school year. The original plan called for an enrollment cap of 1,605 students. Similar adjustments would be made in the second and third years with enrollment maxing out at 1,620 for the 2022-23 school year.

The CSAB took no action on the proposed enrollment reduction or weighted lottery. Instead, the board agreed to allow the SBE to add any stipulations to the charters of the two schools.

Monday’s board meeting became combative as CSAB complained about Wake officials not following the process for expressing concerns about the charters up for approval.

Normally, school districts send impact statements to the CSAB long before charter school applications are sent to the SBE for its consideration.

In this case, the letter from Wake officials, which is essentially a de facto impact statement, came days before the SBE was asked to approve 12 charter schools, five of which would be located in Wake County.

But the CSAB agreed WCPSS had plenty of time to submit an impact statement before the board approved the two applications.

Board members also said it would set a bad precedent to allow WCPSS concerns to be considered after the board approved applications for the two schools.

Joe Maimone, chief of staff for state superintendent Mark Johnson and a non-voting member of the CSAB, said it was inappropriate for Wake officials to take concerns to the SBE the weekend before the SBE was scheduled to rule on the CSAB’s recommendations. Maimone is an ardent school choice advocate and the former headmaster of a charter in Rutherford County. 

“The worst message we could send to the state board and to the charter community is that we’re going to cave in to that kind of last-minute business when folks don’t follow proper procedure,” said Maimone.

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