Nearly six times more students are enrolled in charter schools across North Carolina than 17 years ago. As the number of students and schools increases rapidly, the alternative schooling option has received strong criticism over the impact the schools have had on the state's public education systems and the students they serve.
Charter schools have been labeled as vessels for 'white flight' and called out for their role in segregating the schooling system.
Under state law, charter schools in the state are supposed to make efforts to mirror the demographics of students of the nearby school district but the ABC11 I-Team found this isn't always happening.
The I-Team's analysis of state data found 60% of charter schools have higher portions of white students enrolled than their local public school district.
A third of charter schools in Durham have a higher percentage of white students than Durham Public Schools. Whereas, 72% of charter schools in Wake County report a higher percentage of white students than Wake County Public Schools.
In Halifax County, charter schools have an average of 13 times more white students than the Halifax County School District. Similarly, an average of 70% of students at charter schools in Washington County is white, compared to 8% within Washington County Public Schools.
White students are not overrepresented in all schools. In some counties, Black students are overrepresented in charter schools. Charter schools near the Rowan-Salisbury County School District have an average of four times more Black students than the district.
Economically disadvantaged and disabled students are also underrepresented in charter schools across the state.
In 2018, Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst for NC Justice, found charter schools are becoming increasing more segregated by income.
"We know that students learn better in integrated settings. And so if charter schools are contributing to the segregation of our schools that's an issue, that's a cost we need to think about whether or not the additional benefits of having school choice whether or not those are outweighed or not by the additional cost of having slightly more segregated schools," Nordstrom said.
Nordstrom said as the rapid growth in charter schools over the last decade has impacted the racial and economic disparities between charter and public school districts.
The state removed a cap on charter schools in 2011. Since then, the number of schools has doubled. Eleven new charter schools have been added to Wake County since 2003. While Wake County Public Schools use to enroll a higher portion of white students than the charters, those percentages have since flipped with the percent of white students in Wake County charters schools growing as the percent of Black students got cut in half.
While charter schools have historically enrolled a higher percentage of white students, in recent years the gap has widened. Last year charter schools enrolled around 6% more white students than public school districts. In 2003, white students made up 58% of students in both schooling options, according to an analysis of state data by the ABC11 I-Team.
Christine Kushner, a school board member with Wake County Public Schools said the increase in charter schools has an impact on public school districts.
"In the last ten years, state funding has diverted funding from public schools to these other options that I think have undermined investments in public schools that going forward, give me a lot of worry," Kushner said.
In 2019-2020 charter schools received 7.5% of the $10 billion the state allocated for education. School districts also receive funding based on attendance and as more charter schools are built attracting more students, local districts lose dollars.
"There is a pass-through of $47 million in last year's budget that goes to charter schools that's $47 million of local taxpayer money that is not going into our public schools, but it's going to a charter school that might not be here next year, or a charter school that is being used for resegregation," Kushner said.
Beyond the money, Kushner and Nordstrom point to the impact on students if these trends continue.
"We know through our own experience and lots of research that students who go to school in integrated settings have a lot more, not just academic benefits, and not just long term economic outcomes, but also reduced interactions with the legal system, and higher lifetime earnings, but also that greater cross-cultural understanding that benefits all students," Nordstrom said.
There are efforts across North Carolina to ensure that charter schools are serving diverse students. Many schools have started weighted lotteries that reserve admissions spots for low-income students.
The Exploris School in downtown Raleigh said since they started using a weighted lottery the percent of low-income students has risen from 9% to 23% in two years.
The Exploris School is also one of 60 charter schools across the state who were awarded an NC ACCESS grant. The federal-funded program distributed $30 million for charter schools to increase the number of educationally disadvantaged students they serve.
"Our purpose, particularly starting back with a weighted lottery was always to make sure that we are serving all students, and that's why when we realized that we were skewing that we didn't match the demographics and like that, we took those steps to start the weighted lottery, even before we had the access grant," explained Exploris Middle School director Michelle Duncan.
The school plans on using the grant to increase transportation, its free lunch program, and expanded spaces for learning.
"When we talk about access, we're not just talking about racial equity we're talking about economic equity, equity for different learners. So when we have our students coming in for Exceptional Children, for example, we want to make sure that we have spaces and furniture that's going to support all different kinds of student learning," Duncan explained.
Despite the initiatives across the state, some public education advocates remain skeptical of the long-term impact.
Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, looked into North Carolina's NC ACCESS grants and said she found some red flags.
"When we started to take a look at where that money was going. We were very, very disturbed, to see the schools that it was going to," Burris said.
She said she had concerns about schools with big racial and economic gaps receiving federal funding. She also said she found schools that provided incorrect information in their application.
"A large number of them are really not doing what they need to do to bring kids into the school, and they don't have a track record of doing that as well," Burris said. "One of the schools, a large proportion of the money they were asking for was to build a playground. That's lovely, but should federal taxpayers be building your playground? And I don't think that having a better playground is going to attract economically disadvantaged students to your school."
Many public education advocates said they support school options but the issue is the extreme growth in charter schools in recent years. Many public school advocates said they support putting a moratorium on approving new charter schools.
"There are some pretty serious questions that need to be asked and intend to take a look at the whole system that North Carolina is developing, where you have so many different taxpayer-funded alternatives ... do you really need to have all that redundancy, or is this going to be a house of cards that are going to eventually collapse on taxpayers and parents?" Burris questioned.
Currently, the state is reviewing the application for 21 new charter schools.
Another option Nordstrom said would be to increase funding across the board.
"School integration plans become a lot easier because you have fewer 'haves and have not,' and all schools are able to be good schools," Nordstrom said.
Individually, charter schools can offer free transportation, free lunches, and bilingual materials to reduce barriers to attracting and serving educationally disadvantaged students.