By Teachers, For Teachers
RALEIGH -- Lunch is in the classroom instead of a cafeteria, and students rely on public transportation rather than school buses to get to Longleaf School of the Arts in downtown Raleigh. But you won't hear students complain.
The 197 Longleaf students put up with some inconveniences for the payoff of a fine arts program that lets them specialize in dance, music, theater or the visual arts. Instead of paying tuition for a private school, they're going for free to one of the state's newest charter schools. At Longleaf, they can pursue their artistic ambitions while working on a high school diploma.
"This school is amazing," said Leilani Carr, 14, a freshman at Longleaf who hopes to perform on Broadway. "This lets me have time during the school day for performing arts."
As charter schools continue to grow in North Carolina, they've become part of the debate in Wake County about next month's referendum on $810 million in school construction bonds.
Opponents of the bonds argue that more Wake County students are attending charter schools, private schools and home schools, so there is less need for a bond issue that would add 20,000 new seats to the school system.
But bond supporters say that the growth in these education alternatives won't be enough to offset the new students that school and county planners say could enroll in the state's largest school system by 2018.
Competition for students
Like the rest of the state's school systems, Wake is facing more competition than ever. Through the mid-1990s, the Wake school system educated more than 90 percent of the county's school-age children. But that percentage was at 82.9 percent last school year: the county had 30,784 children opting for private schools, charter schools or homeschooling, while 149,508 were enrolled in the school district schools.
By comparison, the percentage is 80.2 percent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.
Bond supporters note that Wake's "market share," the percentage of the county's students attending the school system, has consistently stayed around 83 percent over the past decade.
Billie Redmond, co-chairwoman of the Friends of Wake County, a business-backed pro-bonds group, said that after consistent growth of 2 percent a year, it's safe to expect the 150,000-pupil district will pick up 20,000 more students in the next five years.
School board chairman Keith Sutton said the board has factored in growth from private schools, charter schools and home schools into its projections. He pointed to studies the district has done over the years showing it has gained more students from charter schools, private schools and home schools than it has lost. Bond opponents don't have the numbers to back up their claims, he said.
"Do you plan on what could happen or do you use sound data and research on what we've seen?" Sutton said.
But opponents say the school district hasn't adequately considered recent changes they think will help slow growth in traditional public schools in Wake.
Former school board chairman Ron Margiotta points to how state legislators approved changes this year that will allow charter schools to expand by one grade level a year without getting state approval. This comes after the Republican-led General Assembly lifted the 100-school cap on charters in 2011. Also this year, legislators approved vouchers of $4,200 for low-income students and $6,000 for students with disabilities to pay tuition to attend private schools. Margiotta said these changes will strengthen private and charter schools, cutting into the school district's growth.
"I'm not sure we're going to see the same growth we'd expect in the public schools," Margiotta said. "We didn't see as much growth as we expected the last six years."
The number of Wake students taking advantage of vouchers will amount to a "blip," according to Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation. He said the state budget only includes $3.7 million for the students with disabilities and $10 million for the low-income students.
Meant to be smaller
Stoops said it would take a major expansion in the voucher programs to have an impact on the school system's growth, but he said competition in Wake from charter schools is a different matter.
North Carolina has 129 charter schools. They operate with tax dollars and are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools follow. More than 6,000 Wake County students attend charters.
In August, Longleaf became the 15th charter school to open in Wake County. Jennifer Broome, head of the school, said her students come from traditional public schools, other charter schools, home schools and private schools.
Bevan Therien said he left Enloe High School, which is considered to have one of the best arts programs in the Wake school system, because he wanted to go to a smaller school. Enloe has more than 2,600 students.
"It was like a machine," said Therien, 15, a sophomore at Longleaf. "They put you through class and then you graduate."
Broome said the goal of Longleaf, located next to Marbles Kids Museum on East Hargett Street, is to have a maximum of 400 students.
Tim Simmons, vice president of the Wake Education Partnership, which backs the bond issue, said charter schools are mostly meant to be small, so it would take a lot of them just to keep up with the 3,000 new students who come to Wake annually. He said charter schools aren't going to make a "serious dent" in the 20,000 new students coming by 2018.
"You are not going to build the number of charters quick enough to address the growth," Simmons said.
Ed Jones, chairman of the Wake County Taxpayers Association, said charter schools, private schools and home schools will absorb some of the enrollment growth -- enough that the group doesn't feel the bond issue is needed now.
"As time goes by, we believe the additional school capacities will have an impact on traditional public school capacity," Jones said.
Last week the State Board of Education gave preliminary approval for four new charter schools to open in Wake in the 2014-15 school year, and 22 more across the state. The four Wake schools project they'll have 1,473 students the first year and 3,261 students by the 2018-19 school year.
Even if more charters open to relieve some of the growth, Simmons said, Wake still needs the bond money to pay for renovations to existing schools.
"The bonds don't just build schools," Simmons said. "At least half of the schools will end up with some repairs and renovations to make them more attractive."
Amid all the politics, Broome, Longleaf's head of school, said people should remember that charter schools and traditional public schools are on the same side.
"We're not trying to compete with Wake County," Broome said. "We're all public schools. We're all in this together."
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