For two years now, Arapahoe Charter School in Pamlico County has been fighting the State Board of Education for approval to expand from a K-8 school to a K-12 school. After the Board denied its request, Arapahoe appealed, and the case remains pending before the state Office of Administrative Hearings.
Rather than wait for that process to play out, however, Arapahoe’s director, Tom McCarthy, tried a different approach.
“We worked very closely with our local legislators, Sen. Norman Sanderson and Rep. Michael Speciale, to see if there was some type of legislative fix that could take place,” McCarthy told NC Policy Watch in a call on Thursday.
That “legislative fix” showed up in the Senate Education committee on Wednesday. Added to House Bill 250, legislation originally intended to address public charter school enrollment procedures, was a provision to allow all North Carolina charter schools to expand the grades they offer without seeking prior approval from the State Board of Education.
“Senator Berger’s office was also influential and instrumental in drafting the language,” said McCarthy. “And Sara Riggins in Berger’s office worked with Rep. Hardister’s office to make sure he was okay with the additional language so there would be no issues when it went back to the House,” he said.
While the legislation would allow Arapahoe to expand to its desired K-12 status, the bill would also have far-reaching consequences for statewide charter school policy going forward. Under the change, any charter school that was originally awarded a K-3 charter, for example, would be able to expand to K-5 without consultation with the State Board of Education, regardless of the impact the expansion would have on the local school district.
Leanne Winner, Director of Governmental relations for the North Carolina School Boards Association, explains the potential statewide impact the legislation could have.
“There are only a finite number of students and tax dollars in a locality, and there comes a point where a charter school absorbs so much of both that it directly threatens the viability of the local school system’s educational services,” said Winner. “School boards are extremely concerned that removing oversight of charter school grade expansion will precipitate this type of saturation in a number of areas that currently have charter schools and put other areas at risk as more charter schools come down the pipeline,” she said.
The logic behind the current law, which requires State Board of Education approval for charter school expansion, is that the Board would have the chance to hear from the local public school district about any adverse impact that the proposed charter school growth would have on its ability to provide a sound basic education to the district’s students.
Wanda Dawson, superintendent of Pamlico County Schools, is very concerned about the pending legislation.
“I am very disappointed that [the expansion] has come up this way, in this manner,” said Dawson. “The General Assembly should not overturn the decision of the State Board of Education. I wish they would allow the process to be completed with the Office of Administrative Hearings,” she said.
When Arapahoe initially submitted its application to expand from grades K-8 to K-12, Pamlico County Schools had the opportunity to submit an impact statement resulting from the potential charter school’s growth.
The impact statement describes how Pamlico County is not wealthy enough to support two comprehensive high schools, and the prospect of losing one-third of its state funding to Arapahoe would limit students’ opportunities and diminish the breadth and quality of education Pamlico County would be able to provide.
Professional development, the after-school tutoring program, two special education teachers, a literacy coach and $60,000 in instructional supplies would be just some of the difficult cuts Pamlico County would have to make as a result of the Arapahoe expansion.
“And it’s late in the game,” said Dawson, referring to the legislation. “We are filling positions now, and we may not know the ramifications [of this legislation] until far into August or September. It’s a possibility we will have to hire employees only to then RIF them,” she said.
School choice vs. community impact
Arapahoe director McCarthy says the real discussion should center on choice. “Are you going to talk about what the impact is of a charter school in an area, or are you going to talk about school choice?” he said.
“We are very tuned in to what our stakeholders want and we provide the services that they desire. That’s what it boils down to. If we are not offering the things that a parent, family or student want, then they won’t choose us,” McCarthy said.
While Arapahoe can currently offer students smaller class sizes and some after school clubs, their ability to offer extracurricular activities is limited. “We are not going to appeal to the football players or the cheerleaders. We know we are not at the point where we can offer those programs, but we can offer a solid education program that is across the K-12 continuum, and we’ll appeal to families who don’t want those extracurriculars,” said McCarthy.
Dawn Baldwin-Gibson, a citizen of Pamlico County who has previously taught at the public high school, explained how the county’s public school system serves as the cornerstone of the community.
“It will simply devastate our school system if we have students who leave our public school and go to the charter school,” said Baldwin-Gibson. “The public school system was very effective in helping children who lost everything when Hurricane Irene came through. The school system was able to organize clothing and food drives, which was what really brought the community together. FEMA even said what a great job our school system did,” she said.
“We can’t do those great works if our school system is depleted,” said Baldwin-Gibson.
HB 250 almost made it from Wednesday’s Senate Education committee hearing straight to the Senate floor on Thursday, just one day after the language allowing unchecked charter school expansion was introduced.
The Senate, however, decided to scrap hearing any House bills yesterday, a tactic frequently employed by lawmakers during the waning days of session as leaders jockey for leverage in negotiations over the state budget and other major issues.
The legislation may make it to the Senate floor next week, however, and after that, could receive swift final approval if the House concurs in the Senate changes.
“We are ecstatic,” said Arapahoe director McCarthy. “We’re ecstatic because it gives us exactly what we want, we don’t have to continue with litigation, and we don’t have to go back risking getting told no again,” he said.
“I’m watching the bill very closely,” said McCarthy, “and I’m very hopeful for the Bobcat family members who want to see this take place so we can move forward and build our K-12 program.”