by Tori Hamby

With North Carolina’s recent approval of 25 new charter schools, the face of the state’s public education system is quickly evolving.

About 15 years since the state’s first charter schools opened in 1997 and more than a year since the N.C. General Assembly lifted the 100-charter school cap, these public schools are opening swiftly. So where does the state go from here?

Sixty-four potential charter schools submitted complete charter applications during the latest state approval process with 25 approved. The previous year, 25 turned in applications with nine approvals, according to John Betterton, a member of the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Council and principal of Bethel Hill Charter School in Roxboro.

Betterton said he thinks application numbers will likely level off after these first few initial waves of charter schools openings.

“The maximum number of charter schools allowed by the state was maxed out for a number of years,” he said. “There were a lot of folks out there with applications who couldn’t go anywhere with them.”

A recent poll, the “North Carolina K-12 & School Choice Survey” released by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and the Civitas Institute on Sept. 10, shows overwhelming support for charter schools among North Carolina voters. The survey shows that 65 percent of North Carolinians favor charter schools, while 15 percent oppose them. The remaining respondents were either indifferent or unknowledgeable about the schools.

The report also shows a high demand for charter schools and other alternative forms of education. While about 3 percent of the state’s students are enrolled in charter schools, 15 percent of respondents indicated that a charter school is their first preference for their child’s education. Thirty-nine percent said they would prefer to enroll their child in a private school and 34 percent said a traditional public school would be their first choice.

“I think the theme we’re seeing in North Carolina is a theme we’re seeing nationwide,” Jeff Reed, a spokesman for the Friedman Foundation, said. “The parents are engaged, they know where those quality educational options are, and they are getting a little more vocal when it comes to getting those options for their children.”

Chris Terrill, Head of School at Pine Lake Preparatory in Mooresville, said the state should balance the demand for charter schools with the ability of the state to provide proper academic and financial oversight. Terrill worked in Florida charter schools for about seven years before moving to Pine Lake earlier this year.

Terrill said individual school districts provide direct oversight for Florida charter schools – unlike in North Carolina where they report to the state Department of Public Instruction. The setup, he said, can keep the state from becoming overwhelmed with the vast number of charter schools.

Florida ranked third in the nation in charter school enrollment for the 2011-12 school year, according to the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Education & Parental Choice.

For a system like this to work in North Carolina, he said, charter and traditional schools will have to view each other as positive assets instead of a threat to public funding. Tax dollars used to fund per-pupil spending follows a student when they choose to transfer to a charter school.

“Otherwise you would have school districts making decisions that are unfavorable to charter schools,” Terrill said.

Betterton said he doesn’t foresee the state approving so many charters that the number of schools exceeds the state’s ability to provide sufficient oversight.

Are online charters on the horizon?

A recent Wake County Superior Court judge ruled that K12 Inc, a for-profit education software company, couldn’t fund a statewide, online charter school without permission from the North Carolina Board of Education.

In the aftermath of the decision, which came in June, the state Board of Education is investigating the feasibility of opening schools where 100 percent of the coursework is completed online, Betterton said.

If online schools are eventually approved, Betterton said, he hopes the state chooses to approach these schools with the same scrutiny it uses to oversee brick-and-mortar charter schools.

“When you go through one of these applications as thoroughly as this council does, (the charter approval) process is pretty rigorous,” Betterton said. “I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of the table.”

Many school administrators, such as Terrill, say that the freedom that an online charter school program could provide might open a great deal of potential for academic fraud. Terrill said existing schools could incorporate online education of individual classes – especially classes not already offered by a school – but the state should be cautious in deciding whether to pursue online charter school programs.

The Friedman Foundation survey indicated that most North Carolinians – about 60 percent – are not familiar with cyber schools.

How do North Carolinians feel about charter schools?

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and the Civitas Institute released a survey about North Carolinians opinions about charter schools and other educational alternatives.

Here’s a snapshot at some of the key findings:

• 55 percent of respondents say they believe K-12 education is on the “wrong track”

• 53 percent of respondents said they would give their local charter schools an A or B grade (6 percent would give their charters a D or F)

• 15 percent of respondents say a charter school would be their first educational option for their child (39 percent chose private schools as their first preference).

• 65 percent of respondents said they favor charter schools

• 46 percent of respondents said they are familiar with charter schools

• 72 percent of suburban respondents were more likely to view charter schools as favorable, compared to 61 percent of rural respondents.