A newly empowered state board will decide whether to approve 14 new charter schools that want to open in 2025, including one in Orange County and two in Mecklenburg County.
The N.C. Charter Schools Review Board held its first official meeting Monday after state lawmakers passed a law that transferred the State Board of Education’s power over charter school approvals and renewals to the panel.
The review board is considering applications for new charter schools in 11 different counties that would open for the 2025-26 school year. That’s a major change for the review board, which had only made recommendations before when it was called the Charter Schools Advisory Board (CSAB).
“Our work is focused on ensuring high-quality charter schools in the state of North Carolina,” Bruce Friend, chair of the review board, said at the start of the meeting. “The bar was always high whenever we were CSAB.
“Perhaps the bar is even a little higher now given that we are the final determiner of who would receive a charter and not receive a charter.”
State Board of Education fighting change
There are more than 200 charter schools open across the state serving more than 130,000 students. They are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow.
The General Assembly made multiple changes to the laws governing charter schools, including saying that the impact on school districts couldn’t be considered when reviewing new applications.
The state board isn’t giving up without a fight. Last week, the state board approved a policy that state and federal funding can’t be given to new and renewed charters unless the state board gives approval.
“I’m not going to make a decision based on whether it’s going to pass with the state board,” Friend said of the new policy.
The state board is made up of a majority of appointees of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The review board is made up of a majority of appointees of the Republican-controlled state legislature.
Movement Foundation wants more charter schools
Of the 14 applicants wanting a 2025 opening, three are in Guilford County and two are in Mecklenburg County. One application each was also received for Duplin, Forsyth, Gaston, Guilford, Hoke, Iredell, Moore, New Hanover, Orange and Vance counties.
Four of the proposed new schools would join a national network of charter schools in underserved areas funded by Charlotte-based Movement Mortgage. Movement, through its Movement Foundation, plans to open 100 charter schools across the nation, the Charlotte Observer previously reported.
Movement started in Charlotte but will open a charter school in Wake County in 2024. Now Movement wants to open a new charter school in Gastonia, Greensboro, Wilmington and Charlotte’s University City neighborhood.
The second new proposed charter school in Charlotte would be the Myrtis Simpson Walker Academy for Boys. It would become the latest single-gender charter school in the state.
In October, the review board will reconsider applications for American Leadership Academy-Monroe in Union County and Heritage Collegiate Leadership Academy in Wake County. Both schools had been previously recommended by the then-advisory board before being rejected by the state board.
Orange County charter school proposed
On Monday, the review board heard the proposal from the leaders of Carolina Achieve to open in Orange County in 2025. If approved, it would expand in time to serve 576 elementary and middle school students.
School leaders pointed to low test scores in Orange and Durham counties and how more than 7,500 students are on waiting lists to get into charter schools in Durham. There are 1,800 students on waiting lists for charter schools in Orange County.
“This school year there will be thousands of children in Durham and Orange counties that are going to graduate without the tool set necessary to succeed in our 21st century economy,” said John Oxaal, the chair of Carolina Achieve’s board of directors. “It’s unacceptable.
“We believe we’ve put together a plan and a school, and we have the passion and expertise to make a dent in that.”
Carolina Achieve had planned to locate on Lawrence Road near Hillsborough beside another new charter school: Western Triangle High. But the Orange County Board of Commissioners voted in June to deny a rezoning request for the property, The News & Observer previously reported.
“That opportunity for that piece of land is dead,” Oxaal told the review board.
Oxaal said the county’s decision blindsided them so they’re now looking for another site.
Review board members raised questions such as how Carolina Achieve would meet its goal of having a diverse student enrollment. The board voted to ask Carolina Achieve to return for a second round of interviews at a future meeting.
“Our new role as the approver is a high bar,” Friend said. “I’m not inclined to put someone into ready to open after a 45-to-50 minute interview at one time.”
Warren County charter school rejected
Also on Monday, the review board rejected Warren Young Explorers School, which wanted to open in Warren County in 2024.
Warren Young Explorers would have a farm on campus and offer outdoor classes. School leaders were looking at using the former Norlina High School property.
Review board members praised the school’s leaders but were skeptical of their ability to open on an accelerated timeline. Board members said they might have made a different decision if the school planned to open in 2025.
“I do applaud their efforts and their mission for the kids and for the community,” said Hilda Parlér, a review board member. “But it’s a business. We always have to keep in mind that schools are businesses.”
Review board members complained that the state doesn’t do enough to provide startup funding for new charter schools, especially ones that are in rural areas.
“We’re squeezing out small community-based charters in favor of schools that are backed by CMOs (charter management organizations) or EMOs (education management organizations) — not that those schools are fundamentally bad or anything like that,” said review board member Alex Quigley.
This story was originally released September 11, 2023, 3:42 PM.