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Lawmakers Tell Board That Reviews Charters To Change Its Mindset

Lisa Worf

Groups that want to open charter schools in North Carolina are reviewed by a board largely consisting of people who operate charters. That board was put in place to weed out the bad applications from the good. But it has been taking some heat lately. Some lawmakers think it may be doing too zealous a job partly because it only recommended a few charters this year. 

The co-chair of the senate education committee Jerry Tillman is not pleased with the board. At a committee meeting this month, he made that very clear to Joel Medley who oversees the state’s office of charter schools.

“I think your changes are good, but unless there’s a mindset change, Mr. Medley, I don’t care how many processes you put on paper,” said Tillman. 

Medley had just described how the board plans to change the charter application process to give groups seeking charters a chance to respond to the board’s criticism and comments.   

“I want to see a systemic change,” Tillman continued. “You’ve been in there a little while. You’ve got some great people who can do that job, I believe. If not, we’ll look at those options in the long session.”

One option could be gutting the board and replacing it with another one. In fact, that’s just what lawmakers decided to do last year when they were fed up with the previous board recommending only 26 charters. But then they got this board. This charter advisory board only recommended eleven charters this year. 

“The advisory board is trying to fulfill the mission that it has put in place, which is working to ensure the existence of high quality charter schools,” said Medley in an interview in April.    

But Tillman has argued the marketplace serves that function.

“If charter public schools do not succeed and meet those needs, they will die on the vine.  The market will determine that and the market only works where you have choice,” said Tillman in March of last year. “If you don’t have anywhere else to go, you have no choice and the marketplace can’t work.”

But a lot of suffering can accompany that “dying on the vine.”  Take the case of Student First Academy.  The charter school in West Charlotte racked up at least $600,000 of debt, after less than a school year. The school closed in April and about 280 kids had to find a new school. This certainly weighed on the minds of advisory board members. 

“If you look at it from a standpoint of, ‘Gosh, what if we approve a charter school that closes?’, I think that’s the wrong approach,” says Eddie Goodall, the director of the North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association. 

He says scrutiny is good, but the board is too careful.  

“You’ve got to also consider, if this school has followed the law and has got this application and it looks like it has a high probability of being successful, I think the greater good is to realize there’s going to be some successes and failures and you just have to look at what the net is going to be,” says Goodall.   

But Tillman has another problem with what he calls the board’s mindset. It’s not just that the board approves only a few charters, but he said in that same senate committee meeting this month board members seem biased against schools that partner with for-profit companies to manage them.    

“If you have a strong financial background, a strong organizational setup with a strong board and access to facilities at your disposal and you’re denied where you’ve been successful in other states, I think we got a flaw in the thinking there and I want that corrected,” said Tillman.    

Charter Advisory Board Chair Helen Nance disputes that. She wouldn’t talk on tape, but she points to the charters the board did recommend this year. Of the eleven, two would be managed by for-profit companies. 

Tillman chose not to push big changes to the board this year, but his threat still remains.  If lawmakers don’t get the result they want, Tillman suggests they may settle their differences with legislation.