Education

Mixed signals on charter schools

Charter school board

Separate oversight board nixed; weakened teacher standards retained

Tuesday, the House Education Committee approved a new version of Senate Bill 337, which previously would have created a new charter school oversight board separate from the State Board of Education.

However, Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Moore, Randolph), sponsor of the bill, brought to the House a last-minute proposed committee substitute (PCS) that effectively nixes the idea of a separate board, instead creating a “North Carolina Charter Schools Advisory Board” that will remain within the Department of Public Instruction. The State Board of Education would retain full oversight over public charter schools, however the composition of the board would change and new members would be appointed.

The latest version of the bill may have been a response to considerable opposition voiced in recent weeks. Bill Cobey, Gov. Pat McCrory’s recently appointed chair of the State Board of Education, previously expressed his view that the version SB 337 approved by the Senate was unconstitutional. If the legislation in its previous state had passed, a new “NC Public Charter Schools Board” would have been established and empowered to “exercise its powers and duties independently of the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction.”

June Atkinson, state Superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction, also disagreed with the creation of a separate oversight board for public charter schools.

“It’s not in the best interest of the state to have two separate boards,” Atkinson told NC Policy Watch. “We would have dual education systems competing for resources.”

Current teacher licensure requirements weakened

Another provision in earlier versions of the bill would have changed North Carolina law by doing away with all teacher licensure requirements for public charter schools. Today’s version reined in that change, instead requiring that public charter schools ensure that only 50 percent of their teaching workforce is certified. Current law requires that 75 percent of teachers in grades K-5 have their teaching license.

In the past, Senator Tillman has used a personal anecdote to justify his view that public charter schools should be allowed to hire unlicensed teachers as long as they had college degrees and that the very notion of teacher certification is unnecessary.

Tillman explained in a Senate committee meeting that he knows a pharmacist in his district who would love to teach at a charter school. The pharmacist has an advanced professional degree, which, Tillman believes, should be qualification enough for teaching a high school chemistry course. According to the Senator, however, the pharmacist wasn’t allowed to teach because he wasn’t “highly qualified under state law.”

Tillman’s anecdote, however, doesn’t appear to hold up when analyzed in light of current law which already permits a sizable proportion of  a public charter school’s teaching workforce to be unlicensed. Add to this the fact that North Carolina’s lateral entry program also allows someone with a bachelor’s degree to begin teaching in a public school immediately in their subject area while pursuing a teaching license, and it’s unclear how a way couldn’t have been found to employ the Senator’s pharmacist friend.

Rep. Larry Pittman (R-Cabarrus) seemed to echo Tillman’s views when he told fellow lawmakers in committee this morning that “certification doesn’t mean much to me.”

“Parents aren’t buying what a lot of the traditional public schools are selling,” said Pittman. “In the case of my family, public schools are doing a lousy job teaching my kids.”

Dr. June Atkinson, state superintendent for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, has a different view about teacher certification.

“It’s very important to know your subject matter,” Dr. Atkinson told NC Policy Watch. “But that alone is not sufficient to reach children and ensure that they are learning,” she said.

“A license is an assurance to the public, just like when I go to the doctor and look for his license to practice medicine,” said Atkinson. “Do we want electricians and pharmacists to not have licenses? Do we want to create a professional system in which professionals are unlicensed?”

Dr. Michael Maher, assistant dean for professional education at NC State University, sees SB 337 as at odds with education reform bills that have been presented by both the House and Senate.

“Both of the [education reform] bills by Berger and Glazier ultimately try to raise standards for teachers,” said Maher. “Their legislation seeks to change teacher licensing standards from requiring that teachers pass a Praxis exam to requiring that they pass the much more rigorous North Carolina Foundations of Reading and General Curriculum tests, which are based on Massachusetts’ MTEL teacher licensure exam.”

“So with those bills,” said Maher, “we are saying that there should be a specific set of pedagogical practices that teachers should know and be able to do.” But Maher said that with SB 337, legislators are sending the message that you can forget about that if you teach in a charter school.

“Standards only seem to matter if you teach in a traditional public school system,” said Maher.

Other changes to the bill

In its previous iterations, SB 337 would have established several other policies for public charter schools that have spurred significant debate, including the absence of a requirement for criminal background checks of employees and the elimination of the current under-enforced requirement that charter schools “reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition” in the area in which the school is located.

However, today’s bill, as amended, also softens some of those changes.

The requirement that public charter schools reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition in the area in which the school is located was reinstated.

Rep. Rick Glazier put forth a successful amendment that would apply the same standard to public charter schools as it exists for traditional public schools with regard to criminal background checks. Charter schools’ boards of directors would be required to set policy for reviewing applicants’ criminal histories and would be held accountable for gross negligence in the event that they do not adhere to this standard.

A summary of proposed changes to SB 337 can be read here. Click here for the full proposed committee substitute for SB 337.

The bill now moves on to the House Appropriations Committee.

Questions or comments? Contact Education Reporter Lindsay Wagner at 919-861-1460,  lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com, or on Twitter — @LindsayWagnerNC.

*Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct the quote by Rep. Larry Pittman. Pittman did not refer to the performance of all of his district’s public schools, only the ones his children attended.

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