State Board of Education meets next week to grant final approval
Back in 2013, when members of a state board tasked with reviewing charter school applications only greenlighted a handful of schools out of many hopefuls to open in the following year, they found themselves in the middle of a political firestorm.
“The plan was to have [charter] operators come into the state like they did in Louisiana and other states and quickly affect the public school choice landscape for the better and in quantity,” said Charter School Advisory Board member Alan Hawkes in an email to fellow CSAB board members in late 2013.
Hawkes, a founder of two Guilford County charter schools run by the for-profit National Heritage Academies, chastised his colleagues following their recommendation of just 11 charter schools out of 71 that applied to open in 2014 because, in part, he received heat from Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) about the low number of approvals.
This year the state received fewer charter school applications, but advisory board members have recommended that the State Board of Ed approve a greater proportion of them — 18 out of the 40 applications got the go-ahead by advisory board members to move forward.
Yet of those 18, several appear to be recommended along with significant reservations, as advisory board members highlighted a number of concerns they have ranging from the prospective schools’ ability to provide sufficient educational services, to one charter management company’s poor track record in other states.
Many applications received very close votes, only narrowly making the cut. And notably, many of the approved applications this time are backed by national for-profit education management organizations (EMOs), rather than small, independent and locally-based nonprofit boards.
As gatekeepers reluctantly approve an increasing number of charter schools on the heels of several high profile charter school closures, one is left to wonder: have we reached the tipping point of quality vs. quantity? And just who stands to profit from North Carolina’s public education coffers?
Charter schools, which are taxpayer-funded public schools, are supposed to be small laboratories of innovation free of bureaucratic constraints. Ideally, the resulting best practices they produce are meant to be replicated and scaled up by traditional public schools.
Beginning in 1997, when North Carolina’s first charter school opened, state law set a maximum number of charter schools allowed to operate at 100, which was the status quo for more than a decade.
In 2011, after Republican lawmakers took control of the state legislature, the 100 charter school cap was lifted—and since then there has been an effort to rapidly expand the number of charters in the state.
Just four years later, the state has already seen nearly a 50 percent increase in the number of charter schools in operation. Now with 146 charter schools, North Carolina is poised to see 15 more opening this fall (including two virtual charter schools) and as many as 18 additional charters in 2016.
While charter school expansion is part of an education privatization movement favored by Republicans in particular, who say families need more choice when it comes to kids’ educational options, the movement has been dogged by controversy as several charter schools have abruptly closed almost as soon as they opened due to financial and governance problems.
Charlotte’s StudentFirst Academy, for example, closed in its first year of operation after financial problems overtook the school and its academic program was revealed to be grossly inadequate. Advisory board members who approved the school highlighted weaknesses in its application, but moved it forward anyway.
While those charter school failures hung over the heads of the advisory board members during the last application cycle, when they voted to approve just 15 percent of applications last year, that percentage climbed much higher for the latest application cycle.
Nearly 50 percent — 18 out of 40 applications — were moved forward by the advisory board earlier this spring for a 2016 opening.
“I was relatively happy with my CSAB colleagues for recommending to NC SBE 18 of 40 public charter applications that got to the interview stage this round,” Alan Hawkes told N.C. Policy Watch this week.
Hawkes, the charter advisory board member who received heat from Sen. Jerry Tillman for the board’s poor approval rate of charter applicants in the prior year, acknowledged the recent failures of StudentFirst in Charlotte, Concrete Roses STEM Academy and Entrepreneur High School.
“[They were] all independent efforts, all under-funded and poorly governed, and all over-estimating demand,” noted Hawkes of those schools. “Deep-pocketed education management-connected schools apparently are looking much better to authorizers in Raleigh.”
Those authorizers — which includes Hawkes — now seem to be favoring larger, national education management organizations (EMOs) that have profited handsomely from the substantial management fees they charge charter schools. In return, they can offer more capital resources to charter schools—a large financial obstacle that is difficult to overcome in order to get a school off the ground. They can also handle recruitment and provide academic guidance
Eleven out of the 18 charter schools recommended to open in 2016 would be backed by EMOs.
But the recommendations did not come without significant concerns—and very close votes—for some.
“There are some [applications] I need to bring to your attention specifically,” said Dr. Joel Medley, Director of the NC Office of Charter Schools, at the May 2015 meeting of the State Board of Education, where he presented the 18 recommendations made by the charter advisory board.
The State Board of Ed has the final decision on charter school applications—but that state body usually follows the advisory board’s recommendations.
Several prospective schools were green-lighted by reviewers in close votes over concerns that their management companies may not have the capacity to carry out their stated missions or have questionable track records in other states.
The advisory board encouraged State Board of Education members to delay to 2016 its vote on one of the 18 applicants, Capital City Charter School (Wake County), thanks to concerns over the ability of the school’s education management organization (EMO) to provide services.
Capital City’s EMO, Accelerated Learning Solutions, Inc. (ALS, Inc.), also plans to open Town Center Charter High School in Gaston County in 2016, which was recommended by the advisory board, but barely—reviewers voted 6-5 in favor of opening the school in 2016. With that application, reviewers also cited concerns about the EMO’s ability to supervise all of the schools ALS, Inc. is planning to open and whether they have the capacity to manage all three of its proposed schools.
ALS, Inc., which currently operates one charter school in Charlotte and is scheduled to open another this fall, also runs 23 alternative high schools focusing on dropout recovery in seven school districts across the state of Florida, according to a due diligence report provided to State Board of Ed members that was compiled by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
According to that report, ALS, Inc., which is owned by another organization that previously ran alternative schools sometimes characterized as “prison-lite,” has come under intense scrutiny for unrealistic enrollment projections and poor academic progress of its students.
In Duval County, Florida, ALS, Inc. was found to have overstated student enrollments, resulting in the local school district overpaying the company by several hundred thousand dollars. Duval County also told ALS, Inc. that it must improve graduation rates at its three schools or face non-renewal of contracts and possible closure.
Questions were also raised by advisory board members about Cape Fear Preparatory Academy, which plans to open in New Hanover County in 2016. Advisory board members approved the school’s application by a 6-4 vote with concerns about the capacity of its EMOs, Newpoint Education Partners and Ignite Learning Services, to oversee the multiple charter schools it plans on opening in North Carolina at the same time.
“One of the larger concerns that arose…is [Ignite Learning Service’s] performance in Florida,” said Medley, who noted that the school had to shutter two of its brand new schools in Florida last fall. Another one of their schools closed in 2013 thanks to governance and financial issues.
Medley also flagged independently-run Charlotte Classical School, noting the 6-5 vote by the advisory board amid concerns about the school’s education plan — applicants did not discuss the components of a ‘classical education’ during their application interview, in spite of the fact that it’s the mission of the school to provide students with a classical education.
Advisory board members were also concerned that the Charlotte Classical board would put many educational programs in place without sufficient attention to uniformity, Medley told the State Board. Charlotte Classical’s 2016-17 application is a second attempt by the applicants to open a charter school in North Carolina.
A final word of caution was raised for Mallard Creek STEM Academy, which would open in Charlotte and was recommended by an 8-3 vote. Advisory board members had lingering concerns over enrollment projections and the proliferation of charter schools in Mecklenburg County.
“Who in the world is going to agree to kill the public school system by bringing in private companies?” said Cheryl Turner, director of Sugar Creek Charter School and a member of the charter advisory board to the Charlotte Observer following last year’s low charter school approval numbers. “North Carolinians aren’t big on bringing in outside anything.”
It seems that would be the case in other aspects of education. Lawmakers have repeatedly said they want to see the Common Core State Standards, for example, repealed and replaced with standards that are “home grown” — because North Carolina differs from other states in terms of its educational needs.
But when it comes to charter schools, the reverse appears to be true.
After receiving nine rejections during the last application cycle, the charter advisory board gave the thumbs-up this time to four charter school applicants that would be backed by Charter Schools USA—a Florida-based for-profit enterprise.
That company, which already operates three charter schools in North Carolina, has received widespread criticism for running a real estate racket in Florida. A report by the Florida League of Women Voters found that the for-profit EMO diverts money for education to private pockets through shady dealings that result in high real estate leasing fees – paid for by the public.
CSUSA would charge around a 15 percent management fee for which it does not have to detail how those monies are spent—and to what degree they amount to publicly-paid profits.
CSUSA’s CEO, Jonathan Hage, who has reportedly contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to political campaigns around the country, also cut checks to three North Carolina lawmakers’ campaigns in 2014 — $2,500 each to Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph), Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln) and Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus, Union).
Hawkes says the reason CSUSA’s charter schools got the green light this time is because of its educational track record in the state. Last time around, said Hawkes, his charter advisory board colleagues’ standards were too high, expecting “immaculate conceptions.”
“Two CSUSA schools, Langtree & Cabarrus, scored “B’s” on their School Report Cards in their first year,” said Hawkes. “Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary poised to do as well or better in its first year.”
The charter school advisory board expressed reservations about some of the CSUSA-backed schools — especially with regard to enrollment targets — but overall the applications received more support than concern.
The State Board of Education will make a final decision next week at its June meeting on the proposed 18 new charter schools, which hope to open in the fall of 2016.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or firstname.lastname@example.org