The ABCs of Charter Schools
As North Carolina’s new lawmakers settle in to the General Assembly, debate over one of the state’s biggest issues — school choice — is heating back up.
The Civitas Institute, a Raleigh-based conservative group, is pushing for expanded school choice, writing in a Jan. 28 tweet that “there are almost 60,000 North Carolina children on waiting lists to access a school that works best for them.”
A corresponding blog post called the situation a “crisis” and said the waitlist total was larger than the number of students in all but three of the state’s school districts.
This made us scratch our heads. Are there really that many students stuck on waitlists?
Brooke Medina, communications director for the Civitas Institute, said her group estimated the number of students waiting to get into schools of choice — which include private schools and charter schools — to be approximately 56,631.
She said that number came from two sources: The students on waitlists for scholarships or state funds to help them afford private schools, and the students on waitlists to enroll in public charter schools.
Waitlists for scholarships
According to the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, 7,593 of 8,113 eligible applicants got Opportunity Scholarships — which provide up to $4,200 per year and are commonly known as school vouchers — in 2018-19.
Medina said Civitas Institute counted the 520 eligible applicants who did not get scholarships as being on a waitlist.
But Kathryn Marker, director of grants, training and outreach for the NCSEAA, said these students were not actually placed on a physical waitlist. They were simply not awarded the money because the number of eligible kindergarten and first-grade students receiving scholarships had already reached the program’s assigned cap.
It would have been more accurate to say the students were “unable to be awarded the scholarship because of the cap,” she said.
The same is true for the Disabilities Grant Program, which covers tuition, fees and some other expenses for students with disabilities. Only 833 of 1,164 eligible students received this grant, leaving 331 students out, according to the NCSEAA.
The Education Savings Account, a program that awards state funds to parents of students with disabilities, gave out 347 grants, according to the NCSEAA. But the data did not say how many of the 1,430 total applicants were eligible.
Medina said Civitas Institute assumed that a similar proportion of applicants would have been eligible for both the Education Savings Account and the Disabilities Grant Program, so the group estimated that approximately 780 students would have been rejected.
Together, these three numbers total 1,631 students.
Waitlists for charter schools
The rest of the nearly 60,000 students on waitlists are those hoping to enroll in publicly-funded charter schools, Medina said.
Charter schools operate outside school districts under the direction of independent governing boards. They were adopted into state law in 1996, and now 185 of them serve more than 100,000 students throughout North Carolina.
According to a 2018 report from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, there were 55,165 students on charter school waitlists as of December 2017.
But this figure comes with some caveats, which the report spells out.
“This figure reflects a point in time — waitlists could change daily — and cannot be verified as an unduplicated count of students — as a student could be on multiple school waitlists,” the report said, adding that it was based on the “best information available.”
Medina acknowledged that duplicates could have skewed her group’s estimate, but suggested that the 55,165 figure could actually be an underestimate because only 134 of the 185 charter schools (173 at the time of the report) provided waitlist data. To be safe, however, she said her group rounded the number down to 55,000 students.
“We’ve presented this aggregate as an estimate,” Medina said. “Despite this, we believe it is a reasonable one.”
So to recap, Civitas Institute counted about 55,000 students on charter school waitlists, plus another 1,631 students who missed out on scholarship money for private schools.
That makes a total of 56,631 students, which is close enough to support the claim that “almost 60,000” students were on waitlists. But with so many caveats at play, the group should have been clearer that its number was an estimate.
Civitas Institute said “there are almost 60,000 North Carolina children on waiting lists to access a school that works best for them.”
This number seems reasonable, but there are some caveats that should have prompted the group to note in its tweet that its figure was an estimate.
We rate this statement Mostly True.
This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide. To offer ideas for fact checks, email firstname.lastname@example.org.