A nonpartisan, national organization setting benchmarks for charter policy is expressing concerns with a pair of GOP-backed charter reform proposals advancing in the N.C. General Assembly, at least one of which the organization describes as the first of its kind in the nation.
The criticism comes after lawmakers in the state House approved controversial House bills 779 and 800 last week before the legislature’s crossover deadline.
The former allows for up to 30 percent growth in charters not identified as low-performing with no additional state review of finances or operations; the latter clears publicly-funded charters to set aside half of their enrollment for the children of private “charter partners,” defined as corporations donating land, infrastructure, renovations or technology to the schools.
Both proposed bills passed the House last week despite opposition from most Democrats and complaints about their impacts during tense committee meetings. And they’re not likely to find stiff opposition in the state Senate, a chamber that tends to be more bullish on school choice.
An official with the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) told Policy Watch this week that, to the organization’s knowledge, no other U.S. state has approved a proposal like House Bill 800, a measure one Democrat likened to creating “de facto, segregated private schools” last week.
“I would be concerned about upholding the public school ethos,” said Amanda Fenton, NACSA’s director of state and federal policy. “Not being familiar with who would take advantage of this, I certainly don’t want to question their motivation, but there’s a reason why charter schools are lottery and open enrollment. I would want to ensure that the public school ethos is maintained.”
Fenton also compared the sweeping new growth concessions of House Bill 779 to a business loan that binds the bank to provide additional funds to an applicant even if they do not meet the goals or the terms of their previous loan.
“It’s not that (charters) shouldn’t be allowed to expand,” says Fenton. “But you would sure want to review their financials to make sure that they’re actually meeting their terms.”
The concerns are noteworthy because NACSA is a widely-respected coalition of school choice supporters that recommend guidelines for the best oversight practices in charter schools, an exploding sector of public education in North Carolina and many other states.
In North Carolina, charters are publicly-funded, tuition-free schools operating with broad exceptions from state regulations on curriculum and staffing. They are also managed by non-profit boards of directors, rather than elected local school board members.
Charters have become a central component of the school choice movement in North Carolina, surging in number to 167 since the legislature lifted the 100-school cap in 2011. As of December, more than 80,000 North Carolina students were attending a charter.
And while school choice supporters often tout charters for out-performing traditional public schools, state data show charter academics drift toward the extremes (see page 13 of this recent state report), meaning they tend to either greatly outperform or greatly under-perform compared to their traditional school counterparts.
State reports also note North Carolina charter enrollment is becoming increasingly more white and affluent, a population that tends to excel academically, despite state law directing that charters “reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the general population residing within the local school administrative unit in which the school is located.”
Meanwhile, recent months have seen a tightening of charter scrutiny under North Carolina’s State Board of Education—an influential panel of gubernatorial appointees and elected officials that has the final say on charter applicants—following a spate of high-profile charter closures, most due to financial problems.
This week, NACSA’s Fenton said House Bill 779’s fast-growth provisions may only exacerbate that trend in North Carolina. That’s because, under state law today, enrollment growth of more than 20 percent would be considered a “material revision” of a school’s charter, meaning they must seek permission from the State Board of Education.
The state board is directed to approve such a revision if a school’s finances, academics, enrollment commitments and operations are in order.
However, under the proposed bill, such a review would not be triggered until a school’s growth exceeds 30 percent. An earlier version of the GOP-written bill would have lifted the bar as high as 40 percent, and opened the door for even low-performing charters to take advantage before critics shredded the bill in a contentious House committee meeting last week.
However, one of the legislation’s sponsors, Wake County Republican Linda Hunt Williams, pointed to a growing waitlist for charter students today. In a January report, the state’s Office of Charter Schools counted more than 37,000 students waiting for entry to a charter.
“This is to open the door for some of these schools,” said Williams, who dismissed NACSA’s concerns that the legislation will only weaken oversight for the state’s charters.
“We have to trust the fact that the board of directors are doing what they can to accommodate those new students,” said Williams.
Yet, while NACSA is not taking an official position on the bill, Fenton said the legislation flouts the national charter group’s recommended guidelines.
“We do think, for a significant expansion, it’s an authorizer’s responsibility to do a review to ensure the organization can support it,” Fenton told Policy Watch this week. “There are situations where growth absolutely should be approved, but we always recommend that it be reviewed before that approval is granted.”
House Bill 779’s fast-growth proposal earned the disapproval of the Republican chairman of the State Board of Education, who told Policy Watch that the state’s current 20 percent growth stipulation is sufficient.
Meanwhile, House Bill 800’s Republican sponsors did not respond to Policy Watch interview requests, although one sponsor, Rep. John Bradford III of Charlotte, called it a “no-brainer” last week, arguing private companies deserve incentives for donating their services to charters.
“This is something they can give to their employees,” Bradford said. “Their employees will be happy and their kids will be in good schools.”
It’s unclear what companies stand to profit from the proposed legislation or who lobbied for the GOP-backed measure. Officials with the state charter office say there is no list of prospective beneficiaries today, although the office would need to develop a list of charters seeking the enrollment set-aside if House Bill 800 passes.
Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat representing Durham and Orange counties, said the corporate perks bill ostensibly clears “company schools” in North Carolina paid for with public dollars.
“To me, this is just a step too far away from the public aspect of public charter schools,” Meyer said. “This is setting up something that feels proprietary in nature.”
Some critics note state law already allows 15 percent of a charter’s enrollment to be reserved for the children of charter employees and board members. That means it’s possible only about 35 percent of a school’s total capacity would be available to the general public through the enrollment lottery.
The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), which represents the state’s public school teachers at the legislature, blasted both pieces of legislation in a letter to lawmakers last week.
NCAE President Mark Jewell wrote that House Bill 800 “significantly reduces a student’s chance of admission” to charters. And Jewell warned House Bill 779’s growth concessions speeds “unchecked growth.”
“The current law that sets the bar at 20 percent before needing additional performance review is adequate, and increasing this threshold to 30 percent would be a loosening of the standards and accountability when the discussion this week on many bills has been about increasing accountability,” said Jewell.
“NCAE believes that before charter expansion should be considered that all public schools be held to the same high standards of accountability, transparency and equity as other taxpayer-funded schools to ensure the success of all students.”