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NC Charter School Bill Raises Questions


A charter school bill that would change the oversight of charter schools in North Carolina has raised a lot of questions and speculation.  The bill would appoint a body independent of the state board of education to decide which schools should open and close.  The bill also includes several other changes like doing away with criminal background checks for charter school employees. 

WFAE’s Lisa Miller joins All Things Considered host Mark Rumsey now:

MR: So, Lisa, why do the bill’s sponsors say they’re doing this? 

LM: Well, good question.  Here’s what state senator Jerry Tillman of Randolph County had to say about the current system at a committee meeting a couple weeks ago.  He’s the chief sponsor of the legislation.     

TILLMAN: It’s not worked how I would want it to work.  We need a new cast of players and we’re doing that with many boards and commissions and this happens to be one of them and there are good reasons for doing what we did.  

MR: So what are those reasons?

LM: For one, he says it would force charters and traditional schools to collaborate.  But many people worry it would make that relationship more adversarial.  I’ve tried to talk to Tillman about this, but I’ve had no luck getting him to return my calls. 

MR: Okay, he doesn’t like the current system for approving and monitoring charters.  How does it work? 

LM: The Office of Charter Schools which is part of the state’s department of public instruction does the actual monitoring.  It reports back to an advisory council made up of mostly charter school administrators and board members.  And that advisory council recommends which charters should open and which ones should close.  Joel Medley, the director of the Office of Charter Schools says the current system works well.  Here he is:

MEDLEY: They have sorted through 90 applications.  They have recommended to the state board 32.  They’ve entertained renewal pieces that have come forward and granted renewals.  They’ve made recommendations that schools should not be renewed.  So from my perspective they have been working well. 

LM: The council passes its recommendations on to the state board of education and the board pretty much follows them.  

MR: How do other states oversee charters?

LM: A lot of states including South Carolina have an independent review board.  And several states now have legislation trying to create independent boards.  So North Carolina is by no means alone in this.  The National Association of Charter School Authorizers is fine with independent boards.  But the thing that worries the group about this bill is that it doesn’t lay out a plan to rigorously review charters.  Several other states have adopted this in charter legislation.  That can take some of the politics out of the process. 

MR: What’s so political about overseeing charters?   

LM: There are a lot of different philosophies about overseeing charters and approving them.  On one end, the idea is approve any school that wants to open.  If it’s bad, parents won’t take their kids there.  The other side is to make sure the charters you approve, are only ones that have a very good shot of succeeding because it can be hard to shut them down.  And then you have all the disagreements over the for-profit charter school industry.  Charter schools take public money, but many of them are run by for-profit companies or at least contract services out to them.  The Superintendent of Brunswick County Schools Ed Pruden does not like them.  The Roger Bacon Academy in his district pays for-profit companies a portion of the public money it receives.  But because they’re  private businesses they don’t have to say how that money is used.  Here’s Pruden:

PRUDEN: I certainly can’t ask the state to take my word for a third of our budget and charter schools need to be financially accountable in the same manner as other public schools. 

LM: But the other argument is, if the school’s doing well, it doesn’t matter if someone’s making a profit off of it.   

MR: What philosophy would this new board take?  

LM: That has been the subject of much speculation.  Several people have privately pointed out that current council members who have ties to the for-profit charter school industry support this bill.  For example, Baker Mitchell who heads the company that runs The Roger Bacon Academy and is with the state’s Alliance of Public Charter Schools sits on the council.  He supports this bill.  Another member Paul Norcross used to be with the alliance.  He was on the board of a school trying to open near Greensboro that had the school’s revenue going to a company in his wife’s name.  That application was rejected.  Norcross told me his support of the bill has nothing to do with that.  That he hopes the new board would only have people associated with charter schools on it.  There are a couple people from traditional public schools on the current council. 

MR: Besides creating a separate board, this bill makes several other changes for charters. 

LM: It does.  The bill would no longer make charters run criminal background checks on employees.  It would also make teaching licenses optional for charter schools.  It gets to one philosophy of how charter schools should operate.  That they should have as much freedom as possible to serve their kids and that means fewer rules.   

MR: So what’s next for the bill?

LM: It made its way out of the senate education committee and is now in the appropriations committee. 

MR: Thanks, Lisa.

LM: Thank you.