State board approves new charter schools for Durham, Orange

Jan. 09, 2014 @ 05:55 PM

On Thursday, the state Board of Education gave final approval to Durham’s 11th public charter school, Reaching All Minds Academy (RAMA), which is set to open in August.

The school, with its proposed science, technology, engineering and mathematics theme, or STEM, was one of 26 approved by the state board.

A new charter school in Orange County, The Expedition School, also was among those approved.

If all make it through the year-long planning phase, the number of charter schools in North Carolina will grow from 127 to 153.

And later this year, state education officials will weigh the merits of 170 new charter school applications, eight of which are proposed for Durham.

Those schools could potentially open their doors in 2015, and if all eight proposed for Durham get the green light, it would bring the total number of charter schools here to 19.

The chance that the pool of charter schools could nearly double is a major concern among Durham Public Schools leaders who complain that charters are a financial drain on the school district.

“Facilities planning is very difficult to do when a school district doesn’t know from year to year how many new schools will open,” said School Board Chairwoman Heidi Carter.

Also, Carter and her colleagues complain that charter schools do not enroll their fair share of children with learning disabilities and others who are more challenging to educate, such as students from low-income families and those with limited English skills.

“It increases the likelihood that we will end up with two separate systems of schools,” Carter said.

Nearly 3,700 Durham school children attend charter schools here and in surrounding counties.

DPS passed on more than $15 million in local funding to charter schools last year.

Charter advocate Annie McKoy, executive director of RAMA, said charter schools give parents and students choice, particularly to those for whom traditional public schools aren’t working.

“I want to reach any kid that might fall through the cracks,” McKoy said.

RAMA seeks applications to fill 144 seats in grades K-3. McKoy said the school eventually will grow to include fourth- and fifth-graders.

She said the growth of public schools throughout the state is a positive phenomenon that should be embraced by everyone concerned about the education of children.

“It’s welcoming because it’s going to give parents a choice,” McKoy said. “We just need to pull together to make sure it happens. It’s the children we’re concerned about.”

Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC), a statewide organization that supports greater educational options through parental school choice, applauded the state board’s approval of the new schools.

The group helped lead the fight in 2011 to eliminate the state cap on charter schools.

“Since then, parents in 10 new counties in our state now offer this opportunity to families who desire to enroll their child into a public charter school that could better serve their child’s needs,” said PEFNC President Darrell Addison in a statement. “Without the elimination of the cap, thousands of children could possibly be stuck in schools that are not working for them.” 

But not all charter school supporters think adding many more charter schools is best for the state or Durham.

“We need to be really, really cautious about charter school growth, not only in Durham, but also North Carolina,” said Carl Forsyth, the managing director at Voyager Academy charter school.

He said charter schools were meant to be laboratories of innovation, where educators could experiment with teaching methods and work to replicate successful approaches in traditional public schools.

“The state needs to get back to that type of thinking,” Forsyth said. “The charter school movement has moved away from an educational focus to a political focus.”

Forsyth said North Carolina should focus on developing quality charter schools and avoid the temptation to make quantity the centerpiece.

When asked about the possibility of Durham nearly doubling its charter school offerings, Forsyth said it is hard to say what the right number of charter schools is for this community. He has, in the past year, suggested a local moratorium might be in order.

“I do think you can saturate the market with too many charter schools and we may be at that point right now,” Forsyth said.