As lawmakers draw closer to finalizing a state budget that has drawn the most attention for how it may boost teacher pay and cut Medicaid, another battle is taking place at the legislature, too—over lowering standards for North Carolina’s growing number of charter schools.
Following several years of significant changes lawmakers have enacted to make it easier for charter schools to set up shop in the state, last week members of the House and Senate approved legislation that would also make charter schools, which are public, able to operate in ways that are less accountable to the public than their traditional public school counterparts.
The potential changes could affect transparency, governance, and protections afforded to LGBT students at public charter schools in North Carolina.
Last week, the General Assembly approved legislation that allows private, for-profit charter school management companies to keep their employees’ salaries secret, even though they are paid with public funds.
The bill, SB 793 Charter School Modifications, stipulates that the salaries of charter school teachers and those who sit on charter schools’ non-profit boards of directors are subject to public disclosure.
But many charter schools in North Carolina contract with for-profit companies that manage them—and the salaries of the employees of those private organizations would not be required to be made public.
“If you’re running a school with public money, then you need to disclose all salaries,” said Cheryl Turner, director of Charlotte-based Sugar Creek Charter School and a member of the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board.
“Why is it we’re saying if you’re making money off of [operating a charter school], you don’t have tell anyone about it, but if you’re not making money on it, then we need to know what you’re earning. The logic should apply to everybody,” said Turner.
In a prior version of SB 793, the bill simply required charter schools to publicly disclose all employees’ salaries, without making note of whether or not they were employed by the for-profit management company.
The last-minute changes to the legislation come at a time when one prominent Wilmington-based charter school operator, Baker A. Mitchell, Jr., has been fighting media requests for months that have asked him to fully disclose the salaries of all employees associated with his charter schools –teachers as well as employees of his for-profit education management company, Roger Bacon Academy.
Arising in a private conference committee tasked with reconciling older House and Senate versions of SB 793, the tweak to the legislation that would shield the salaries of for-profit charter school employees from the public eye came just before a self-imposed deadline Roger Bacon Academy set for itself of July 28 to provide all of its salaries to the StarNews in Wilmington.
But on Monday, Roger Bacon spokesman Mark Dudeck told the StarNews that they wouldn’t respond to the paper’s salary disclosure requests until August 8, citing the developments with SB 793.
While debating the final version of the legislation on the House floor on Friday, Rep. Tricia Cotham (D-Mecklenberg) called out Mitchell and others like him who could, with this legislation, hire family and friends through a private charter school company and pay them anything they like with public funds.
“Is this transparency?” questioned Cotham to fellow House lawmakers.
Not only does Mitchell operate four charter schools in North Carolina that has enabled him to personally take in 16 million taxpayer dollars in management fees over the past several years, he is also deeply involved in charter school politics at the state level.
Mitchell sits on the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board, which is tasked with reviewing charter school applications and monitoring their progress, and he has also contributed thousands of dollars to the campaigns of several lawmakers, including Sen. Jerry Tillman, a key proponent of charter schools who sat on the conference committee tasked with crafting the final version of SB 793.
Mitchell, for his part, says that he’s producing good results in terms of the academic outcomes of his students—and that’s why it shouldn’t matter to the public what he pays his employees.
“We are all unified in the goal to eliminate “waste, fraud, and abuse” and to improve performance,” Mitchell told N.C. Policy Watch on Monday.
“However, I believe competition in a free market is the only sure path to achieving this goal,” added Mitchell.
Mitchell expanded on his philosophy regarding governance and public disclosure of charter school employees in his blog:
In a free-market capitalistic society, the quality of results determines success or failure and ensures efficiency in the delivery of goods and services. That principle should stand as the criteria for governmental oversight of its contracts and grants. When the media intrudes into the affairs of private corporations by disrupting meetings, making exhaustive, pointless demands for mountains of records, and demanding the most private personal information of employees, the operations of these corporations become distorted in coping with these demands.
Gov. Pat McCrory has previously said he would veto any legislation that shielded charter school salaries’ from the public eye.
“I still share my previous concerns with transparency for charter schools…lawyers are currently reviewing the interpretations of this new law and I won’t take action on the legislation until we have a clear interpretation on transparency,” McCrory said last week, upon learning of the final version of SB 793.
Rep. Cotham has asked McCrory to come through on his earlier promise.
“Now is not the time to play politics, to play word games, or to listen to donors,” said Cotham in a letter to McCrory on Monday. “Now is the time for ethical leadership and for unwavering commitment to the principles you earlier said you support. I call on you to keep your word and veto this bill.”
In an earlier version, SB 793 was amended to offer protections against discrimination to gay students attending public charter schools.
But last week, members of the private conference committee also moved to strip the protections for LGBT students out of the bill.
Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) defended the move, saying that this version of SB 793 relies on state law that protects all students who attend public schools.
But Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford) asserted that the LGBT community is not a protected class in North Carolina, prompting the need for a previously passed amendment to the bill that drew on language from federal law that would have provided the necessary protections for LGBT students attending public charter schools.
Reached for comment, Office of Charter Schools Director Joel Medley said that as he understands the current law, any child can attend a public school, and the same would go for a public charter school.
“Regardless of a child’s sexual orientation, if they can attend a public school, then why not a charter school? That’s the way I read the law,” said Medley. “But that’s not a definitive legal argument,” he cautioned.
Rep. Glazier explained the problem with the way the legislation is worded is that it specifically outlines discrimination protections for certain classes – in this case, ethnicity, national origin, gender and disability.
“If you’re going to do that, then you have by definition excluded the other categories,” said Glazier. “Additionally, those categories are protected by federal and state law, but sexual orientation is not.”
“The conference committee clearly did this to not protect kids who could be discriminated against based on sexual orientation,” added Glazier.
Duke University law professor Jane Wettach told N.C. Policy Watch there is no specific statute that provides protection for LGBT students.
“Other than in anti-bullying law, there is no specific statute in North Carolina that protects any school children on the basis of sexual orientation,” said Wettach.
“But it is a sticky issue,” she added.
The issue of protections for LGBT students in the bill initially reached a fever pitch last month thanks to actions by Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam (R-Wake), when he took objection to the addition of sexual orientation as a protected class for students, comparing it to pedophilia, incest and bestiality.
Stam passed out to his colleagues on the House floor an outdated listing of sexual orientation classifications that has since been updated by the American Psychiatric Association.
Stam’s assertions prompted national media attention.
Ultimately lawmakers approved SB 793, without discrimination protections for LGBT students included.
As of Tuesday, Gov. McCrory was still contemplating a veto of the bill, citing the need for full transparency for public charter schools—but if he goes through with it, lawmakers could overturn his decision.
Governance and conflicts of interest
Also last week, House lawmakers debated and passed a technical corrections bill that offered more allowances to those employed by for-profit charter school operators: the ability to serve on the boards of public charter schools that contract with them.
The short provision in the bill that would allow this change prohibits the State Board of Education from setting the parameters for who is allowed to sit on boards of publicly-funded charter schools.
As N.C. Policy Watch’s Sarah Ovaska reported last week, the issue of for-profit charter operators wanting to serve on non-profit boards has come up before—once again, involving Baker Mitchell.
Last year, the State Board of Education told Mitchell that neither he nor other Roger Bacon staff could be voting board members of the charter schools, a decision that bothered both Mitchell and the charter school board members.
The charter school’s board protested the ban, and filed a grievance with the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings challenging the education department’s decision.
That legal suit was dropped on July 16, just eight days before the proposed change emerged in the House Technical Corrections Bill, according to the administrative hearings office.
The provision in the technical corrections bill, if adopted, could make it easier for national for-profit charter school management companies like National Heritage Academies (NHA) or Charter Schools USA to also have greater influence on individual charter schools in North Carolina – a move that coincides with an interest by some lawmakers to dramatically increase the presence of national for-profit operators in the state.
Alan Hawkes, a member of the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board who holds close ties with NHA, told his colleagues upon approving relatively few new charter schools for 2015 that Sen. Jerry Tillman’s intent was to have many more national charter school operators come into North Carolina and make public school districts feel “threatened and up their game.”
Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) sees the provision in the technical corrections bill, along with allowing for-profits to shield salary information as laid out in SB 793, as part of a larger plan designed to protect private, for-profit charter school operators (sometimes referred to as education management operators, or EMOs).
“It’s incestuous,” said Glazier. “You end up with the EMOs being able to make a determination of who sits on non-profit charter school boards, including corporate owners and administrators. And then if an employee’s salary is too high, they can make that person an employee of the for-profit company to shield him or her from the public eye.”
“It’s deliberately designed to defeat transparency and allow for conflicts of interest,” added Glazier.
The Senate will debate the technical corrections bill Tuesday morning. Stay tuned for the Governor’s decision on a veto of SB 793.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]