The N.C. State Board of Education may be set to approve a policy limiting out-of-state leadership in North Carolina charter school boards as soon as next month, but some, including state board Chairman Bill Cobey, say the new provision might not go far enough.
Members of the state board—which is granted broad oversight powers for North Carolina’s 151 public charter schools—received a policy proposal from their Charter School Advisory Board last week that they require a majority of members on any charter’s governing board maintain their primary residence in North Carolina.
Given the growth of national charter school networks, such as the Challenge Foundation—a national group that funds a pair of schools, accounting for nearly 11 percent of the student population, in rural Rutherford County — proponents say it’s essential to maintain some local control over charters.
It’s unclear whether the board will approve the provision when it meets again in March, but this week, Cobey, a Republican appointee of Gov. Pat McCrory, told N.C. Policy Watch that he will push for a stronger statewide rule that imposes the same residency requirement on officers of charter boards.
Although he was not able to name specific schools, Cobey told Policy Watch that he knows of multiple charter boards led by officers from out of state, including one in which community residents frequently complained of absentee leadership in the school.
“That’s my point of view,” said Cobey. “These are taxpayer funds. I believe they should be safeguarded.”
And, this week, after hearing Cobey’s comments, N.C. Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican representing six counties in northeastern North Carolina and a powerful school choice advocate in the legislature, believes lawmakers may have to consider their own statewide ban on out-of-state officers on charter boards if the State Board of Education does not act.
Last year, Steinburg was one of two primary sponsors on legislation that set conflict of interest and nepotism policies for charter school leadership, although the bill left the door open to out-of-state board members and officers.
This week, Steinburg said North Carolina may need to rethink its laws. “I wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable with elected leadership positions coming from outside the state,” said Steinburg. “We need to utilize the homegrown folks.”
Charter schools, while they educate less than 5 percent of North Carolina’s average daily membership, are one of the most controversial topics in North Carolina education today.
Supporters say the schools, which are granted greater flexibility in curriculum than traditional schools, are a means to boosting performance in areas with chronically struggling public schools. But opponents deride the charter movement as one component of a conservative-based shift toward privatization and disinvestment in public schools.
Since North Carolina lawmakers agreed to lift the cap on charters in 2011, the number of charters has grown from 100 in 2012 to 151 last year, with dozens more seeking to open in the next two years.
And while some charters have reported sterling test scores, others have struggled academically. North Carolina, meanwhile, maintains a somewhat unusual authorization system for the public charters, granting express powers for opening or shuttering such institutions to the State Board of Education.
North Carolina is one of just 15 states nationwide that limits charter authorization powers to a single, statewide entity, rather than granting similar charter oversight powers to the local boards of education that share funding with charters, according to a 2015 report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), a nonpartisan, national policy organization that recommends best practices for charter laws.
Last year, the NACSA recommended states extend charter oversight beyond a single authorizer. The lack of local control is one key reason why advocates such as Natalie Beyer, a member of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education, says the state should at least require that the leaders of public charters be residents of North Carolina.
It’s a matter of great import in Durham. Beyer’s system counted more than 5,000 students attending charters during the 2014-2015 academic year, according to state data. That’s more than 13 percent of the county’s student population, among the highest percentages in the state.
“But this should be incredibly important to all the citizens of North Carolina,” says Beyer. “It is public money. You want to maximize the impact on local students and minimize any profiteering by outside interests.”
That, in itself, is not a major problem for Cobey and other conservative leaders. Cobey says at least a majority of the board members for public charters should be North Carolina residents, but he argued that some expertise could be provided by residents of other states with charter schools.
Steinburg agrees, which is why the eastern North Carolina Republican said last year’s bill specifically authorized such out-of-state board members. Yet Steinburg’s legislation also granted leverage for the State Board of Education to set limits on out-of-state membership and board officers.
“In terms of bringing additional perspective to those particular boards, if they’re from out of state and they have different experiences, that can be a plus,” said Steinburg. “… But when you’re talking about leadership, those people making the decisions, I would prefer to see those people be from North Carolina.”
For many, including Cobey, it’s a pivotal discussion to consider as charters grow in North Carolina. Officials with the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, which oversees management of the state’s public charters and reports to the State Board of Education, do not keep data on out-of-state charter leaders.
Adam Levinson, interim director for the office, told Policy Watch he would have to survey the state’s ever-growing ranks of charter schools to compile such information, but multiple state officials agreed last week that a number of North Carolina’s public charters include leaders from outside North Carolina.
That includes, according to state staff, the highly-decorated Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Rutherford County. The school, which teaches about 1,300 K-12 students from eight counties, is one of the state’s longest-running charters and among its most academically burnished. But it’s also among the most polarizing.
As Policy Watch reported in 2011, the school led an annual diaper drive for local anti-abortion groups. The charter has also sued the county public school system, claiming it was entitled to more in state funding than the system had funneled its way.
State data show that, in rural Rutherford County, more than 10 percent of students attend either Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, or its sister school, Lake Lure Classical Academy. The Lake Lure school garnered its own controversy last year when it temporarily suspended all school clubs following the creation of an LGBTQ-friendly club. After it was contacted by the North Carolina chapter of the ACLU, the school rescinded its ban in November.
However, many public school advocates are more riled by the schools’ deep ties to out-of-state leaders than their politics. Both charters are funded by conservative Oregon businessman John Bryan’s Challenge Foundation, a right-wing funder of the school choice movement, and they include representatives from the foundation on their governing boards.
Bryan, meanwhile, has reportedly challenged global warming research and advocated for government cuts. He’s also been a generous campaign donor in North Carolina, writing checks for thousands to powerful GOP leaders, including Gov. McCrory, state House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate President Phil Berger and dozens more.
Both Steinburg and Rep. Charles Jeter, the Mecklenburg County Republican who co-sponsored last year’s charter boards legislation, also received thousands in campaign donations from Bryan, according to state campaign finance records.
Yet while some have suggested that the lobbying indicates an outside attempt to take over North Carolina’s public schools, Steinburg flatly rejected the notion that active donors like Bryan are shaping his charter policies.
“If anybody knows anything about me at all, anyone who makes contributions to my campaign, I make it very clear they are buying nothing,” he said.
Still, Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Public Schools First N.C., a public schools advocacy group, says the leadership of public charters, regardless of whether they receive funding or support from outside of North Carolina, should reside with the population it serves.
“Who do you want making decisions about the charter schools?” says Brannon. “You don’t want outside undue influence to come from funders.”
Bypassing local authority, she says, poses intrinsic risks when it comes to accountability with local residents.
“Think about how local school boards operate,” said Brannon. “ They’re from the community. They represent the district. They have an understanding of the community and the kids. There are layers and layers of accountability here for how we fund the schools. If we’re going to have a charter school that’s set up by parents to serve a need in the community, that control should rest with the people who care about the community.”
Beyer agrees. To her, state leaders should exclude all out-of-state representation from charter boards.
“There are so many capable, talented and involved education advocates that are citizens of North Carolina,” she said. “I think individuals from out of state should serve on boards within their own community.”