CORINTH — Margaret Carter drives 100 miles every day to get to and from her job at Corinth Classical Academy. The fourth-grade teacher calculated her overall mileage since she started at the charter school: roughly 500,000 miles driven in 10 years.
"That's insane," Carter said. "But the drive is the only bad part of my job."
The decision to work at a charter school was a conscious one for Carter.
Before coming to Corinth Classical in 2007, she spent eight years working in traditional school districts. Carter eventually left because she said she didn't feel supported by administrators or parents. She also said she didn't like the one-size-fits-all approach that was happening at her school.
"In traditional public schools, children are just a number," Carter said. "I love the way we individualize here [at Corinth Classical]. I believe that every single child has a different learning style and we're able to accommodate all that."
More parents are sharing Carter's sentiments as charter schools continue to expand across the state, North Texas included. According to transfer data from the Texas Education Agency, nearly 5,000 students living within Denton County school district boundaries have enrolled in area charter schools.
As students and parents gear up for National School Choice Week on Jan. 22-26, officials with both charter and traditional public schools see no signs of the growth stopping.
What is a charter school?
Charter schools came to Texas in fall 1996. They started out as an alternative for kids who weren't doing well in traditional schools and needed credit recovery options.
Charters are free, public schools that are run privately, mostly by nonprofits or colleges. To get started, operators must apply for a charter with TEA. Once that charter is granted, it needs to be renewed every few years.
In many ways, charters are similar to traditional public schools. Both receive state and federal funding, both are given academic and fiscal ratings by TEA and both are required to teach students for a total of 75,600 minutes per year. Students who graduate from charter schools receive the same state-accredited diploma traditional public school students get.
Because they are privately operated, though, charters have more flexibility than traditional school districts. Charter schools aren't required to provide student transportation, and they don't have to abide by student-teacher ratio caps set by the state.
Enrollment also works a bit differently for charters. Traditional public schools must educate any child who enrolls in its attendance zone, even if that means a campus is over capacity. Charter schools must accept any child, but on a first-come, first-served basis.
Many charters operate on a lottery system, in which students are assigned a random number when they enroll. When the enrollment period closes, numbers are drawn and those students are admitted until the campus hits capacity. All the other students are then put on a wait list.
Businesses and real estate agents figured out a long time ago Texas was growing. Following a free-market approach, charter schools followed suit.
In 1999, Texas charters enrolled more than 12,000 students. By 2017, enrollment numbers had jumped to more than 272,000 students. Currently, more than 140,000 Texas kids are on wait lists to get into a charter school.
"When we started, a lot of kids were getting lost in the shuffle of these big schools," said Billy Rudolph, a spokesman for Responsive Education Solutions, the Lewisville-based company that runs Corinth Classical Academy. "They were either too overwhelmed, or they were falling behind. We found that need and met it."
ResponsiveEd, as the company is known, received its original charter in 1998 and opened 15 credit recovery schools the following year. Today, the network has 74 schools in Texas and Arkansas with more than 23,000 students enrolled.
The ResponsiveEd model has expanded since it began. Branching off of credit recovery programs, the network now runs virtual academies, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) campuses and classical curriculum schools. It recently opened its first autism-specific campus in San Antonio.
ResponsiveEd is one of the major charter school networks in North Texas. In Denton County alone, the company operates 11 schools and is set to open a new campus in Frisco for the 2018-19 school year.
"We are seeing an incremental increase," Rudolph said. "We expect to grow almost twice as fast in the next five years as we did the previous five years."
Several state and federal officials are proponents of charter schools, especially when it comes to the "school choice" movement. Betsy DeVos, the U.S. secretary of education, championed charter schools in Michigan, and Gov. Greg Abbott spoke in favor of charters this spring at a Texas Charter Schools Association rally.
"As governor, I will work to provide our children with the best education possible by expanding and improving charter schools in Texas," he said at the rally. "Access to a quality education is not a political issue, and Texans must come together to make sure no child is deprived of a quality education."
What's the issue?
As charters become a more viable option in North Texas, local school districts are voicing their concerns.
Denton and Lake Dallas ISDs recently had a joint meeting with the city of Corinth to talk about a potential loss of funding as charter schools move into the area. School officials from both districts reported seeing budget declines because they aren't receiving funding for the students who move to charters.
Since 2012, Denton ISD has seen 2,348 students transfer to ResponsiveEd schools, while Lake Dallas had 1,321 students transfer, according to TEA.
Officials with the school districts also are worried about charter schools getting additional state funding.
Currently, charters get a mix of private, state and federal funds. By contrast, traditional public schools are funded mostly through property taxes along with state and federal funds.
Until this year, charter schools didn't receive state money to build schools. That changed when the 2017 Legislature allocated $60 million to pay for charter school buildings.
School district officials have argued there is no reason for students to transfer to charter schools because test scores and college readiness often are better at traditional schools.
"I think there are excellent charter schools and I think there are excellent private schools in this world, but they were intended to be in environments where students had no other way out, those who were in extreme poverty and needed another choice from a failing school," Lake Dallas ISD Superintendent Gayle Stinson said in the meeting.
Based on last year's standardized test scores, it seems Corinth Classical is on par with nearby traditional public schools.
Corinth Classical, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade, had 87 percent of its students pass the state test in every subject. Denton ISD's Stephens Elementary and Hawk Elementary had 72 percent and 87 percent pass, respectively. Myers and Crownover middle schools had 70 percent and 89 percent of students pass, respectively.
In Lake Dallas ISD, 81 percent of Lake Dallas Elementary students passed every test compared to 80 percent of Corinth Elementary students. Lake Dallas Middle School saw 83 percent of its students pass each test.
"There is a misconception that we're stealing students, and that's just not true," Rudolph said. "The students are already there. The challenge for us is to make sure people have the right perception of what a charter school is."
Teachers who choose to work in charter schools know they play a role every day in changing that perception.
"People think we're only for at-risk students, but we've got some high learners," Carter said of her fourth-grade class at Corinth Classical. "We've got a good thing going on here."
CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.
FEATURED PHOTO: Corinth Classical Academy teacher Margaret Carter watches as one of her students reads out loud during a class assignment on Tuesday. Carter has been teaching at the public charter school since 2007 after moving away from public school districts. Caitlyn Jones/DRC