Charter schools are controversial and still relatively new in North Carolina. Last year, 2.5 percent of students in the Buncombe County Schoos attended a charter school.
But the fact that they’re a kind of hybrid often leads to confusion concerning exactly what a charter school is. A private entity can start one, as long as it’s a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and has $1,000 for the state’s application fee. According to the Center for Public Education, a national organization based in Alexandria, Va., charter schools typically have “regulatory freedom and autonomy from state and local rules (in terms of staffing, curriculum choices, and budget management).” Since they’re public, however, they cannot be religious (unlike private schools that can accept publicly funded vouchers), and they “must have open enrollment policies, may not charge tuition and must still participate in state testing and federal accountability programs.”
Thus, charter schools can have their own specific focus, as long as the state approves the name, organization, management, curriculum and how the school will evaluate student performance. This, in fact, is where the name comes from: Each school draws up a contract, or charter, that outlines how the school will function.
There are, however, downsides, the most salient one being that if a charter is revoked, the school shuts down. This can happen for multiple reasons: According a 2011 study by the Center for Education Reform, a national organization that advocates for increased educational options, 53.6 percent of U.S. charter school closures between 1992 and 2011 were for financial reasons or due to frictions with public school districts.
Other reasons are more troublesome. According to the study, 5 percent of school closures were due to problems obtaining or keeping the needed facilities, and 24 percent were due to mismanagement. “Indeed, the fact that nearly a quarter of all closed charter schools closed because of ethical violations makes a big impression on advocates and opponents alike,” the study notes. “Sponsors of these schools may deliberately misspend, misrepresent or refuse to hold the charter school accountable to its contract.” Another 18.6 percent of closures result from not meeting the academic standards required by the charter.
And when a charter school closes, it leaves students and parents scrambling to find an alternative.