Charter schools are frequently touted as small laboratories of innovation where best practices in education can be developed and scaled up to serve the greater good, ideally in traditional public schools that serve all-comers.
This week, however, North Carolina lawmakers voted to elevate charter schools to a bigger stage, allowing them to more easily compete with traditional public schools, rather than complement them.
Charter school expansion
When a public charter school in North Carolina wishes to offer grades above what the state initially approved, the school must go before the State Board of Education to get the green light. This process exists so the Board can consider factors such as whether or not the organization has demonstrated fiscal responsibility while in operation and what kind of impact the expansion would have on the local school district.
On Tuesday, the House and Senate debated and approved the final version of HB 250, which would allow public charter schools to expand, one grade at a time, without having to gain approval from the State Board of Education.
HB 250 was originally intended only to give enrollment priority to siblings of current charter school students. At the last minute, however, language was inserted into the bill to address charter school expansion procedures, thanks to the actions of the director of Pamlico County’s Arapahoe Charter School.
Arapahoe Charter School currently serves students in grades K-9, but director Tom McCarthy wants his school to serve students through the 12th grade, even though the local school district presented a report to the State Board of Education detailing how Arapahoe’s expansion would destroy their lone public high school.
McCarthy’s expansion request was denied by the State Board of Education, and his appeal was to be heard by the Office of Administrative Hearings last month. Instead of waiting for that process to play out, McCarthy decided to work with his local legislators to come up with a “legislative fix” so that Arapahoe could expand without State Board of Education approval.
Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, urged fellow members not to move forward with the legislation, explaining that by doing so, they would be setting a very bad precedent.
“This bill will effectively decide the litigation,” Glazier said, between Arapahoe and Pamlico County schools.
If they were to approve the bill, Glazier said the general assembly could look forward to more parties coming to them to solve their legal disputes.
Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union), who voted against the bill, agreed with Glazier, saying that it was a “mixing up of the process” to effectively legislate the outcome of the Arapahoe case.
Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford) was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the bill, telling his colleagues that it was a good bill and that he needed it for the charter school that he serves with.
Glazier also pointed to the fact that the bill undermines the State Board of Education’s ability to deal with cases in which a charter school’s expansion would negatively impact a local school district.
“Charter schools are not supposed to be in conflict with public schools, they are supposed to be a part of public schools,” said Glazier.
When it came time for Pamlico County’s own Rep. Michael Speciale to speak to the bill, he said he had talked with Pamlico’s school superintendent, Wanda Dawson, and he knew she was not happy.
“I told her [Dawson]…I said if your concern is that all of these kids are gonna be going to the charter school, then you need to rethink how you’re doing business in the school, I said, because your problems are bigger than Arapahoe. I said if you’ve got parents of children that want to leave your school system, then you need to re-think how you’re doing business,” said Speciale.
Speciale prefaced his statement regarding what he said to Superintendent Dawson with the comment that he received letters from many parents in the Pamlico schools system that urged him against doing anything in favor of Arapahoe Charter School.
Eddie Goodall, executive director of the NC Public Charter Schools Association, told NC Policy Watch he supports the charter school expansion provision.
“It’s not logical to have a charter school grow by enrollment percentages—it should grow by grade level,” said Goodall.
The bill passed the House, 68-47. It easily passed the Senate, 40-9, hearing no debate. HB 250 now goes to the Governor for his signature.
Relaxed charter school regulations and a new oversight board
Senate Bill 337, as it was initially written, would have created a new oversight board for public charter schools that would have little to do with the State Board of Education, which is supposed to oversee all public schools in the state.
That move, said State Superintendent June Atkinson, would have created “dual education systems competing for resources.”
After considerable opposition from Atkinson as well as State Board of Education chair Bill Cobey, Sen. Jerry Tillman, sponsor of the bill, introduced a new version to the House last month that would keep the Charter School Advisory Board within the State Board of Ed, albeit with new provisions that would allow for the appointment of new advisory board members.
Goodall, executive director of the NC Public Charter Schools Association, said he looks forward to the passage of SB 337.
“We need a charter school advisory board that consists of members who want to see reform in public education,” said Goodall. “I think that [the current] charter school advisory council members tried to do a good job, but lacked the leadership and vision they needed.”
Goodall also hoped that the new State Board of Education would be friendlier to the charter school movement. “With a new State Board of Education, “ Goodall said, “we begin a new era where we begin to remove the antagonism.”
During the past two years, however, there has been a positive climate for charter schools in North Carolina. In 2011, the cap on how many charter schools could operate in the state (100) was lifted by the general assembly, and since then a surge of charter school applications have been filed, and as many as 70 new charter schools could open in the state in 2014.
Currently, 75 percent of elementary charter school teachers must have certification, while 50 percent of middle and high school charter schools must be certified. The bill would drop that percentage down to requiring that just 25 percent of all charter school teachers be certified.
Tillman has previously explained that he wants to relax teacher certification requirements because he wants those with advanced professional degrees, such as pharmacists or doctors, to be able to teach in a charter school without having to deal with the licensure process.
Charter schools will no longer have to comply with the law requiring their student populations to reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of their local population thanks to language contained in HB 250.
The conference committee report for SB 337 does include what is described by Goodall as a “charter tax.” New applicants must pay $500 and existing charters seeking renewal must pay $1,000 to the State Board of Education.
Goodall hopes this charter tax will do something positive for charter schools, such as bolster the research capacity of the charter advisory board. “We need more folks who can spend time developing best practices for authorizing schools and setting policy. Maybe the charter tax can support that,” said Goodall.
SB 337 was moving toward final approval this week; however there have been repeated delays, and the Senate will not hear the conference report until this Saturday.
Questions? Comments? You can reach education reporter Lindsay Wagner at [email protected] or at 919-861-1460.
Photo: Support Arapahoe Charter School