By EMERY P. DALESIO
RALEIGH, NC (AP) -- Nine new charter schools are headed for August openings, the first since North Carolina lawmakers removed a 100-school statewide limit last year.
The State Board of Education approved the schools Thursday despite concerns that not enough was known about the impact the new charters could have on racial diversity and the ability of school districts to repay money borrowed for construction.
"There's just a lot of financial issues," school board member and state Treasurer Janet Cowell. She is responsible for protecting the state's good credit rating and heads a commission examining the ability of other public bodies to repay borrowed money.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that get their funding from taxpayers but operate with fewer of the regulations facing traditional public schools.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Martin, Durham, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school districts complained that the schools planning to open in their districts would draw away funding and alter the racial balance of existing schools.
While the schools were almost unanimously approved, the discussion again framed the differences over charter schools. Advocates say charters create education options for parents while critics say they set back public education by siphoning off funding and students with the most engaged parents.
"I'm not sure how long we can continue to fund two separate public school systems," said school board member Jean Woolard of Plymouth. "It looks like we're going down that slippery slope."
Board Chairman Bill Harrison noted that the public school establishment and charter school advocates have often seen themselves as adversaries, but with the number of charters likely to multiply it's time for that to end.
"We're in a new day, and charter schools are part of the public school landscape. I don't want us to forget charter schools are public schools," Harrison said. "The end result will be better opportunities for all kids."
One group advocating for charter schools said even if the future brings hundreds of applications, the state school board will decide which to approve under a process already in place.
"Yes, there will be considerably more potential public charter school leaders applying in the future, and that is a good thing. However, it is important to note that we have a system in place that is designed to help ensure quality," said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
The nine charter schools approved Thursday include three in rural areas that haven't had any in the past. They are Bear Grass Charter School in Martin County, North East Carolina Preparatory School in Edgecombe County, and Water's Edge Village School in Currituck County.
The others are Cornerstone Charter Academy and High Point College Preparatory Academy in Guilford County, Corvian Community School in Mecklenburg County, Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School in Orange County, Triangle Math and Science Academy in Wake County, and Research Triangle High School in Durham County.
Research Triangle High School was opposed by Durham city and school board leaders, who argued that it would draw predominantly white students and undercut a new science-and-math-focused curriculum at an existing public high school. Eight charter schools serving more than 3,000 students already operate in Durham County. They enroll 9 percent of Durham's public school students, the highest in the state, Durham schools Superintendent Eric Becoats said.
The nine schools were pared down from 27 previously in the approval pipeline and given fast-track screening.
The state school board put the nine schools on notice that if they can't open in time for the coming academic year, and don't act by April to postpone opening until the 2013-14 school year, their applications will return to the broad pool of charter schools seeking approval.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)