Administration and oversight for public charter schools has been handled by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction for years — but Senator Jerry Tillman, a longtime supporter of charter schools, wants to change that.
“DPI was never in love…with charter schools,” Sen. Tillman (R-Randolph) said in a Senate Education Committee hearing on Tuesday as he introduced to fellow lawmakers a gutted version of House Bill 334, which would transfer the Office of Charter Schools out of the Department of Public Instruction, placing it under the State Board of Education.
“Would DPI have any role with charter schools if this bill is enacted into law?” asked Sen. Josh Stein (D-Wake). “Not anymore,” answered Tillman.
In addition to taking oversight duties of charter schools away from DPI, Tillman’s proposed bill would also change the structure of the Charter School Advisory Board, which is tasked with reviewing and recommending applications for new charter schools.
Tillman’s proposal would strip away the governor’s ability to appoint the advisory board’s chair and discontinue the ability of a sitting State Board of Education member to serve as a voting member of the board.
Back in 2011, North Carolina lifted the 100-school cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in the state.
Since then, lawmakers have pushed hard to expand the number of operating charter schools while offering little in the way of added capacity to a small office tasked with ensuring the schools’ compliance with the law and the quality of the education they deliver.
Senator Tillman in particular has previously expressed frustration with the pace of charter school expansion in the state.
But moving the charter school office out of DPI still raised questions about the ability to carry out necessary oversight and administration.
“What is the staff capacity of the State Board of Education,” pressed Sen. Stein. “I know that DPI is an agency that has staff people to do work…but what staff does the State Board have in order to carry out this work because we’re now charging it with oversight of the charter school program,” said Stein.
Tillman indicated that with his proposal, the State Board of Education would be given the funds necessary to hire their own personnel to oversee charter schools. But legislative staff pointed out that the new group would still have to work with DPI on matters related to special education services, testing and accountability, and financial and business services.
The new Office of Charter Schools as it is outlined in HB 334 would also have an executive director appointed by the State Board of Education within ninety days of the act becoming law. A search committee headed by Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest would be tasked with finding a recommendation for director.
Currently, the Office of Charter Schools is without a permanent director and DPI is working on hiring a new one. Former executive director Joel Medley recently left his position to run one of the state’s two new virtual charter schools—the K12, Inc.-backed N.C. Virtual Academy.
Last year, Tillman used Medley as a target for his frustration that more charter school applications were not being approved, even though it’s the charter advisory board, not the Office of Charter Schools, responsible for moving applications forward.
Stein said he’s not a fan or rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. “Why do you think the State Board would do a better job than DPI?” asked Stein.
Tillman said he’s heard of more than one instance in which DPI served as an obstacle to charter school education—but wouldn’t elaborate.
“I’m not going to give you the details,” said Tillman. “A good lawyer would never do that.”
“I thought that’s what we did here,” retorted Stein. “No, we don’t air dirty laundry here,” Tillman shot back.
Despite operating with a staff that has varied between three and eight personnel—not enough to handle the increasing number of charter schools, State Superintendent June Atkinson has pointed out in the past—the Office of Charter Schools has engaged in numerous lengthy investigations of schools among the state’s 140+ that have come to its attention for experiencing governance or financial problems.
One of the more recent cases involved a charter school serving children with special needs, Dynamic Community Charter School. The Office of Charter Schools found that school to be in noncompliance with the law with regard to financial irregularities as well as safety and educational quality issues.
The school waged a campaign to save it from being shut down, asserting it served a special needs population in ways that weren’t possible in a traditional school setting. But the Department of Public Instruction ultimately ordered the school’s closure —with the blessing of the State Board of Education—on the basis of the investigation’s findings.
And the Office of Charter Schools has historically not been shy to recommend revocation of charters in the past when schools have proven noncompliant with the law. Fifty-four charter schools have either had their charters revoked, non-renewed, or have voluntarily relinquished their charters after investigations since the state’s first public charter school opened back in 1997.
State Superintendent for Public Instruction June Atkinson spoke out against Tillman’s proposal in a statement released Wednesday.
“This bill would make it more difficult to provide services quickly and appropriately to charter schools,” said Atkinson. “This bill ignores that the Department of Public Instruction is the administrative arm of the State Board of Education, and overlooks the NC Constitution and previous judicial rulings.”
“Making this move would be similar to changing your mailing address while staying in the same house,” Atkinson added.
Just two years ago, state lawmakers dismantled the old charter school advisory council and replaced it with the now Charter School Advisory Board that comprises legislative appointees who are friendlier toward charter school expansion. Their task is to review new charter school applications and make recommendations to the State Board of Education.
Tillman’s proposing to tweak the structure again with HB 334. Current law allows the governor to appoint the chair of the advisory board—but Tillman wants to take that power away from the governor but allow him to keep three gubernatorial appointees to the board—none of whom could serve as chair.
A member of the State Board of Education also has a voting seat on the charter advisory board currently, and Tillman wants that person’s seat gone, too.
“We don’t want them ‘loving it up,’” said Tillman of the idea of current State Board of Education members serving on the charter advisory board. His proposal would relegate that person to serving as a nonvoting member and allow the State Board to instead appoint a “charter advocate” to serve.
Sen. Josh Stein asked how a “charter advocate” is defined. Tillman’s response—you know one when you see one.
According to legislative staff, the newly constituted board would still be subject to the State Government Ethics Act, requiring transparency of advisory board members with regard to conflicts of interest.
The Senate Education Committee approved Tillman’s proposal Wednesday. The bill is expected to be heard on the Senate floor today—and if it passes, it will go back to the House for concurrence and then on to the Governor for his signature.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]