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In some North Carolina counties, traditional schools are being squeezed by charters

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Image: Adobe Stock

There has been much written about the impact charter school growth has had on some of North Carolina’s larger, urban school districts.

But the impact might be greater on some of the state’s smaller, rural school districts where the loss of students, and the funding that follows them, are felt more profoundly.

Take Granville County Public Schools (GCS), a district of about 7,600 on the Virginia border.

This month the school board approved a plan to close an elementary school and to consolidate two middle schools, the result of lagging enrollment.

The board explained that the controversial closure of historically black Joe Toler Elementary — and Mary Potter Middle — schools in the fall is necessary because it has become too expensive to continue to operate them.

“The loss of students to charters, it’s really impacting us,” said school board Chairman Tom Houlihan.

The enrollment at Mary Potter has reportedly dropped from 464 students in 2009 to 248 this school year. Meanwhile, the enrollment at Joe Toler has fallen to 187 students from 229 students a decade ago.

The shift to other schools will mean some students will have nearly hour-long bus rides.

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Granville School Board Chairman Tom Houlihan

Helen Ladd, a researcher at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who specializes in education, said she has concerns about the growth of charters in rural areas because of the burdens they place on school districts.

“I have mixed feelings about charter schools anywhere but the logic of the choice component, giving students choice, makes much more sense in an urban area where there are shorter distances to travel than in a rural area,” Ladd said.

Enrollment woes linked to charters

GCS enrollment problems, and a nearly $1 million budget shortfall, can be linked to the growing number of students in the county who now attend charter schools in Granville County, as well as charters in nearby counties such as Durham and Vance counties.

Charter school enrollment among children in the county has grown 510 percent since the 2012-13 school year when only 231 – 2.7 percent — of the county’s roughly 8,544 students were enrolled in charters.

Charter enrollment now stands at 16.1 percent, the equivalent of 1,410 of the county’s 8,855 students.

“It has completely wiped out the middle class in our school district and I don’t just mean whites,” Houlihan said, noting that some black middle class parents are also choosing charters.

This year, there are 7,445 students enrolled in 19 GCS schools across the county. The enrollment tally is the lowest in at least seven years.

Rosalyn Green, president of the National Mary Potter Club, an organization made up of Mary Potter alumnus who want to preserve the school’s history, said GCS’s enrollment woes are caused largely by charters, but other factors such as home schooling and private schools are also in play.

“It’s a lot of other things, including some of the things that’s going on inside the system,” Green said, explaining that some parents are upset over disciplinary practices.

State sees charter growth

The growth in charters in Granville County reflects charter growth across the state.

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Helen Ladd

Charter enrollment in the past 10 years has grown by more than 200 percent. There are 109,389 students now being served by charter schools, about 7.3 percent of the total public school population of 1.5 million.

Charter school enrollment exploded across North Carolina after the state’s Republican-led General Assembly lifted the 100-school cap on charters in 2011.

And the number of charters has nearly doubled to 182-brick-and-mortar schools since the cap was lifted. The two virtual charters operating in Durham give North Carolina a total of 184.

Charters are public schools. They are given more calendar and financial flexibility than traditional public schools.

Ladd said the impact of those flexibilities on student achievement is likely overrated.

“To the extent that the addition of flexibility is a good thing, research in some cases shows it’s a good thing but not as good as some people think,” said Ladd. “Then I prefer that flexibility to be done through the public system rather than through the nonprofit charter school entities that are set up.”

Funding follows students

Back in Granville County, GCS must pay out $2.65 million to charters this year, an increase of $2.2 million more than the $437,000 it paid out during the 2012-13 school year.

Under state law, educational dollars follow students so school districts must share per pupil local funding with charter schools.

Granville County only has two charter schools: Falls Lake Academy is the larger of the two with 1,040 students, and Oxford Preparatory Academy enrolls about 435 students.

Houlihan said the loss of so many students leaves GCS with fewer dollars to educate those who remain, especially those students with profound disabilities and other special needs.

Ladd agreed that charters often leave traditional schools with students that are more challenging to educate.

“They attract the ones who are less costly to educate and what that does is impose cost on the remaining traditional public schools and leads to greater concentrations of disadvantaged students,” Ladd said.

Houlihan said the fact that many charters do not provide transportation or meals also leads to higher concentrations of disadvantaged students.

He said charters are able to skim the county’s more affluent students, those whose parents can provide transportation and afford to send school lunches daily.

Durham also losing students to charters

One county away, the Durham Public Schools has lost more than 1,000 students over the past four years. During that same span, charter school enrollment has increased by more than 1,700 students.

DPS, which has more than 33,000 students, will pass through $24.1 million to charters this year.

That’s a lot of money, and the loss is no doubt felt across DPS, but bigger, wealthier districts with more resources are better equipped to absorb the losses than smaller, poorer districts such as GCS.

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Franklin Co. Superintendent Rhonda Schuhler

“It just devastates them,” said Durham school board member Natalie Beyer. “The impact is much, more profound.”

Despite being home to more than a dozen charters, there has been little, if any, talk about DPS closing any of its 53 schools as a result of enrollment losses attributable to charters.

The same is true in Franklin County Schools (FCS), which is similar in size to GCS. Parents of more than 1,400 students in Franklin County have also chosen charters.

“We’re not at that point,” said FCS Superintendent Rhonda Schuhler, when asked whether she has considered recommending school closures.

FCS will fork over $2.6 million to 34 different charters in Franklin, Wake, Nash and several other counties throughout the region.

“It definitely puts a financial strain on the district,” Schuhler said. “Even though we’re losing students, we still have the same operational expenses.”

More charters coming

There are several charters currently in the planning phase, so it won’t be long before North Carolina has 200 charters.

For GCS, expansion of an existing school is the more immediate threat.

This month, the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) recommended that Oxford Preparatory School, one of the charters in Granville County pulling students from the district, be allowed to grow by 330 students – a 63 percent increase — to start the 2020-2021 school year.

Oxford Prep is currently a grades 6-12 school and is expanding downward to include grades K-4. The school will add a fifth grade in the fall.

The additional students will move Oxford Prep’s enrollment a little closer to that of the county’s largest charter school, Falls Lake Academy, which enrolls 1,040 students.

Victoria Bradsher, director of Oxford Prep, noted that only 227 of her students, roughly half, reside in Granville County.

Bradsher said GCS leaders spend a lot of time complaining about charters, but contends charter aren’t Granville’s biggest problem.

“The biggest problem is trying to convince the students we’re serving that they can have a future beyond Granville County,” Bradsher said.

Charters such as Oxford Prep that request enrollment growth of 30 percent or more must receive approval from the State Board of Education (SBE).

The SBE will decide next month whether they will approve such growth for Oxford Prep, Northeast Academy in Elizabeth City, Moore Montessori Community School in Southern Pines, CrossCreek Charter School in Louisburg and STARS Charter in Vass.

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Dave Machado

Over in Franklin County, Schuhler is keeping a close eye on the CrossCreek request.

“That will have a pretty significant impact on us because they’re in the heart of the county,” Schuhler said.

Dave Machado, director for the State Office of Charter Schools, said the CSAB looks at impact statements submitted by district superintendents when requests are made to open a charter or allow one to grow.

“If the application is strong enough and the demand and need is there, then the advisory board is likely to grant that charter permission to grow,” Machado said.

Charters causing schools to resegregate

In addition to the financial impact, Houlihan and other charter critics worry about the resegregation of the state’s public schools due to the rise of charters.

Last week, the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a non-partisan research and advocacy organization, called on the state to require impact analyses on segregation for new charter school applicants and to determine the “actual” funding impact of charter schools on the budgets of traditional schools.

“What we are calling for is a much closer look at the real cost of charter schools and the real impact on traditional public schools,” said Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Forum.

Poston noted that in the early 1990s, charter schools were sold to reluctant lawmakers as “incubators of new ideas” that would be shared with the goal of improving education throughout the state.

He said there’s little evidence today that charters and traditional public schools are working in that manner.

“What we’re seeing now are competitors that are drawing students from traditional public schools without offering students anything different,” Poston said.

Meanwhile, Schuhler said it’s unfair that traditional public schools must operate under different rules and without the calendar and financial flexibilities of charters.

But she said FCS is resolved to survive in the competitive environment in which it must now operates.

“The days of students attending our schools because the bus drives by their house are over,” Schuhler said. “In a competitive environment, we need to make sure that we’re the best choice for students in Franklin County.”