Chartering a dangerous path

Chartering a dangerous path

- in Fitzsimon File

These are the days when pundits make their lists of the stories they expect to make headlines this year in North Carolina. Most are understandably talking about the 2012 election, the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, the ongoing battle between the General Assembly and Governor Beverly Perdue, and of course the economy.

But if you are looking for the sleeper issue of 2012, it might be charter schools.

The Republican General Assembly last session lifted the state cap on the number charter schools that had been set for years at 100.

That prompted the State Board of Education to approve a fast track approval process for schools that can be ready to open next fall. Twenty-seven schools applied and eleven were selected by the new N.C. Charter School Advisory Commission to come back later this month for a second look.

Many more schools are expected to begin the longer application process with the hopes of opening in the 2013-2014 school year. But the story hardly ends there.

One of the schools that made the cut proposes to turn over day to day operations to a for-profit management company in Michigan that disturbingly already runs a few charter schools in the state. For-profit education with your money is here and seems to be expanding.

Former legislator Jeff Barnhart is one of the lobbyists for K-12, Inc., a national for-profit company with a questionable record that operates virtual charter schools. Barnhart is from Cabarrus County and has already approached his local school board about partnering with the company.

The company came under fire in a recent New York Times article that cited a state audit in Colorado that revealed that taxpayers paid $800,000 to K-12 for students that were never enrolled in the virtual school or were not residents of Colorado.

For-profit education with your money that doesn’t even pay to educate North Carolina students may be on the way too.

Then there is the new advisory commission that includes members who have direct financial interesst in companies that manage or provide services to charter schools. Charters are not only a different way to set up public education, they can be a cash cow to private corporations.

And don’t look to the law to prevent any problems. It does not require charters to follow any purchasing regulations or bidding processes, even though the charters are spending public money.

You would think legislators would have thought of that before opening the floodgates to virtual charters and for-profit companies running schools. But not this General Assembly.

One sure sign that a lot of money is at stake is the recent split in the charter advocacy world. Former Senator Eddie Goodall recently left the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools with plans to form the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association.

There are other questions about the forthcoming charter explosion beyond the shifting of millions in public money to private interests, most importantly who is going to be keeping tabs on all the new schools.

Besides the conflicted new advisory commission, there’s only a three-person office in the Department of Public Instruction.

That’s not enough to keep up with the charters currently operating, much less the flurry of new ones that will be coming online.

Then there are questions about the nonprofit boards that run charters and who they are accountable to.

An investigation last year by Sarah Ovaska with N.C. Policy Watch found that the family foundation of an Oregon business executive and education privatization advocate is a significant donor to a charter school in Rutherford County.

Two members of the foundation sit on the school’s board and fly in from Oregon for the meetings to decide how to spend our money.

None of this means that there aren’t charter schools in North Carolina providing a good education and steering clear of any ethical or questionable practices. There are plenty.

But there are clearly problems too, and it’s hard not to think they will only get worse in 2012 with the cap lifted, applications flooding in, and lobbyists for corporate education interests circling the General Assembly and local school boards looking for a way to turn a vital public investment into their private gain.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.