Tempers flare among charter school supporters as state tightens vetting process

Tempers flare among charter school supporters as state tightens vetting process

- in Education, Featured Articles
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Allan Hawkes (Photo: Linkedin)

It was 13 days ago that the State Board of Education signed off on just eight of 28 aspiring new charter schools in North Carolina, a stunning flip for a board that’s approved dozens of new charters since state lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap on charters in 2011.

Today, Alan Hawkes, a Greensboro charter leader who sits on the state’s Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB), is still hot.

That’s because five schools tapped for opening by Hawkes’ board, which makes recommendations on charter applicants to the state board, were overwhelmingly voted down by the State Board of Education (SBE).

Board members cited typos, weak applications and publicly questioned whether some schools’ academic plans were ready for prime time despite the CSAB’s support. Typically, state board members heed the counsel of the CSAB, but not this month.

“Don’t get me started about public charter school no-nothings (sic) on the NC State Board of Education,” Hawkes wrote in an email to Policy Watch this week. “The temerity and ignorance of those soulless SOB’s (sic) presuming to know better than the NC Charter School Advisory Board with its diversity of knowledge and experience in this area. If there is anyone who knows the good, the bad and the ugly about public school choice, it’s members of our NC CSAB.”

Bill Cobey, chairman of the SBE and a Republican appointee of Gov. Pat McCrory, isn’t firing back.

“I won’t return insults with insults,” says Cobey.

“He obviously does not know members of the State Board of Education,” Cobey adds. “I can’t think of a more outstanding group of people who totally have a heart for children. Alan just doesn’t know the members. If he did, I don’t think he would characterize members that way.”

Such is the tense, and oft-times hostile, relationship these days between state school officials and charter proponents such as Hawkes, a state Senate appointee to the CSAB who’s one of many charter advocates lashing out at the state board this week.

Charter proponents like Hawkes are deriding a seeming reversal in fortunes for North Carolina’s bustling charter sector, which has surged from 100 to 167 schools in roughly five years, before SBE members seemed to signal a more surgical approach to charter openings earlier this month.

Board members approved an additional eight schools to open for the start of the 2017-2018 school year, but left another 20 applications on the table.

“What the state board showed was almost no confidence in the (CSAB), or very little confidence,” said Lee Teague, executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, a state coalition of charter leaders.

Indeed, tempers are flaring as North Carolina public school officials are seemingly tightening their vetting process for new charters, publicly-funded schools across the state gifted with increased flexibility in their operations. It comes after a slew of new charters in recent years prepared to open their doors before crumbling under financial and academic concerns.

In North Carolina, it’s an evolving process, officials say, but the vetting is especially important. After all, failed charters can cost the state a bundle. Since 2011, 15 charters have been shuttered in the state, many of them relatively new outfits. Some have reaped millions in public funds during their operations, despite reports of chronically poor academics and questionable finances.

The spate of charter closures since 2011 mark a surge in failing charters for North Carolina. In the five years before the legislature lifted the charter cap, just 10 charters were closed by the state. And in recent years, at least three new Charlotte-area charters were approved by state leaders before failing months later.

The problem has not gone unnoticed.

“We’ve had to live with those failures,” said Cobey. “And at the end of the day, the state board has to own the decision as to whether or not we sign off on the charter.”

When the STEM Education for a Global Society Academy, a Columbus County school that focused on interactive, hands-on learning methods, shut its doors due to governance issues in April 2015 just months after state leaders approved their application, the school had already pulled in nearly $1 million in taxpayer dollars, according to state records.

Other failed charters, of course, have absorbed much more in public funds. Kennedy Charter in Mecklenburg County, a charter serving children from troubled homes which operated for 18 years before closing this summer due to poor academic scores, took in more than $18 million over its lifetime.

Crossroads Charter High, also in Mecklenburg, closed this summer too due to academic performance issues and financial management, but took in more than $15 million from the state since it opened in 2001.

The risk, financially and academically, is high for charters in North Carolina.

“We want any charter school that we approve to have a very high chance of being successful,” added Cobey. “I personally don’t want to be part of any failures.”

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Charter schools in North Carolina educate a scant percentage, less than 5 percent, of North Carolina students. But the publicly-funded institutions, which receive per-pupil allotments from state coffers like traditional public schools, earn more than their fair share of controversy.

Across the nation, charters, freed from the constraints of the traditional curriculum, have been viewed as laboratories for innovation in public schools, reaching students who have struggled in traditional schools. Some have excelled; others have not.

And in North Carolina, which has seen a surge in charters since the GOP takeover of the N.C. General Assembly in 2011, bickering over school funding between traditional public schools and charters is an annual affair.

Indeed, this year, a Republican-led bill aimed at funneling more public cash into charters stalled amid bitter opposition in a Senate education committee, but is likely to return early in the legislature’s 2017 session.

Additionally, anger over the state’s charter vetting process, which can take months or even years in some cases, is nothing new. State lawmakers, frustrated with a slew of new charter closures in 2013, dismantled a previous charter panel before reassembling the new CSAB, Teague points out.

The CSAB makes recommendations to the State Board of Education about charter applications, but final say over openings and closings remains with Cobey’s board.

Nationally, it’s a bit of an unusual authorization process, experts say. The nonpartisan National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) recommends states have multiple authorizing panels. In many cases, states also give local boards—which are required to transfer local dollars into charters—the power to open and close charters.

The SBE’s power, at times, has seemed to chafe state lawmakers, with powerful legislators such as Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Republican representing Moore and Randolph counties, speeding legislation this year limiting the state board’s ability to close charters.

Tillman did not respond to Policy Watch interview requests this week, but based on recent days’ bickering over the board’s decision, the SBE’s power over charters might be up for discussion again when the legislature reconvenes in January.

This week, Teague, with the state Public Charter Schools Association, called the state board’s actions “out of the blue.” SBE members, despite endorsements from advisors in some cases, criticized prospective charters’ applications, criticizing typo-riddled documents submitted by applicants and unclear education plans.

“They had a clear majority vote from the CSAB and treated them like the advisory board had voted them down unanimously,” said Teague. “That concerns me. They did it without any independent review on their own, and in a very arbitrary fashion. They didn’t give these schools any benefit of the doubt.”

Criticism of the vetting process is not a new thing in this sector. This week, Hans Peter Plotseneder, the CEO of the former Entrepreneur High School, a Charlotte-area charter focusing on vocational- and business-oriented schooling, criticized the state’s “drawn-out process” for new applicants.

Plotseneder’s school opened in 2014 before it closed, months later, over concerns about finances and governances. A 2015 report from The Charlotte Observer noted the foundering school had just $14 in its bank account at the time.

“You start submitting your application,” said Plotseneder. “There is a long waiting time when nothing happens, and there was no explanation why there had to be such time.”

Meanwhile, Teague says the CSAB should consider this month’s SBE votes a “wake-up call,” and should present schools they are recommending for approval “in a favorable light.”

Asked to elaborate, Teague said some of the recommendations from the CSAB came with seemingly reluctant endorsements from advisory board members.

“I’m not talking about spin,” said Teague. I’m talking about presenting it in a way that would lead the (SBE) to make a wise decision.”

Denied charters may appeal the SBE’s vote to the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings, and Teague said he expects several to do so.

“That’s another reason the state board should not have acted in the rather cavalier fashion it did,” said Teague. “Now there’s going to be a lot of resources spent by the state if these schools appeal.”

But charter critics and state board members say SBE members are simply doing their job to prevent wasted taxpayer dollars and protect North Carolina children.

Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Public Schools First N.C., a statewide advocacy group for K-12 public schools, said the SBE’s move indicates state leaders are “righting the ship” after several years of overly lax opening standards.

“I am encouraged to see the state board take a more careful look at charter applications,” said Brannon. “This is their first opportunity to prevent a future problem.”

Brannon called the SBE a “firewall” for unstable charter applicants, and that given the risk—financially and academically for sometimes struggling students—it’s imperative state leaders get it right.

“If they’re going to get all these privileges and flexibility, they should really have to show results for children,” said Brannon. “If they’re not serving their purpose and they’re wasting taxpayer dollars and they’re not serving children, they should have to go back to the drawing board.”

Brannon, meanwhile, blasted charter backers such as Hawkes for lashing out at the SBE this week.

“I actually think we have a fairly strong State Board of Education,” said Brannon. “And Bill Cobey’s one of the strongest chairs that I’ve seen in a decade. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. He’s been a very strong advocate for our public schools and he’s been really independent in his thinking.”

For his part, Cobey says this week that the increased scrutiny for charter applications is a “natural progression.” And while he agrees charter openings have slowed of late, he says the quality of charter applicants is on the rise.

“We’re just doing our job,” said Cobey.

Cobey adds that he hopes new charter applicants get the message that the process will be “rigorous.”

“Starting a school from scratch is not for the faint-hearted,” he said. “It’s a difficult process. It’s a lot of work for people to do right, and we want charters to succeed.”

Indeed, that’s one things both sides can seem to agree on.

“A failing charter school helps no one,” says Teague. “And quality charter seats help our goal.”