North Carolina charter school update: a mixed bag

by Bob Luebke

Raleigh, NC – While charter schools continue to attract students and expand in record numbers, the current legislative session can best be described as a mixed bag for the 148 charter schools and 64,000 students who attend them. One bill nearing approval makes some seemingly small changes that might nevertheless be helpful to charter schools. Another measure that would bolster charter schools seems stalled in committee this year.

Woods Charter School

Woods Charter School is one of three charter schools operating in Chatham County, NC.

HB 334 was approved by the House earlier this session, then was approved with new language by the Senate last week. The bill now goes to conference committee and then hopefully to Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk. In general the bill shifts control of charter schools away from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). HB 334 transfers the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) – an 11-member body that makes recommendations to the State Board of Education (SBE) regarding all aspects of charter school operation – to the supervision of the board itself. Previously CSAB had been under the supervision of the DPI.

For some, the move might seem insignificant. Still, it’s a change that charter advocates hope will help to remedy what many believe to be a tense and uneasy relationship with the traditional public schools.

That tension is rooted in conflicting views about charters. Many traditional public school advocates view charters as enemies since they stake a claim on public dollars and are not subject to the same rules and regulations. These same advocates view success as a zero-sum game. Hence in their view the only way for public schools to win is for charters to lose.

Likewise, more often than not, charter school advocates are skeptical of the real intent of their public school “friends.” Once charter schools were folded into the existing public school structure and required to submit applications to the SBE, the animosity was institutionalized. Charter schools saw the playing field as not level. Hence there is the need for action and the proposal to place the Office of Charter Schools under the supervision of the state board and away from DPI.

Should the bill become law, CSAB’s transfer would be more than symbolic. It would significantly lessen DPI’s influence on charter school issues. That’s a change many charter school advocates have been seeking for years.

It might also mean that charter school proponents may be able to get more pro-charter advocates appointed to CSAB. The appointment of neutral or skeptical members to CSAB has hurt the charter school movement and slowed growth.

The bill also changes the structure of CSAB, which has the responsibility of reviewing charter school applications and making recommendations to the State Board of Education. Under the legislation, the governor no longer appoints the chair of the advisory board. In addition, the CSAB member appointed by the SBE can no longer be a member of that body and must be an advocate of charter schools. The last provision is particularly needed since history has shown that appointments to the board don’t necessarily mean a person is truly supportive of charter schools. The legislation is rightly concerned with correcting that problem.

HB 334 has other relevant provisions for charter school advocates, including: allowing a minority of school board members to be non-residents of North Carolina; requiring local charter boards to adopt anti-nepotism policies; raising the minimum number of students that charters must serve from 65 to 80; and requiring charter schools to be in financial compliance before allowing them to expand.

HB 334 allows charter schools the chance to navigate many of the problems contained in the current statute. Proponents say it creates a more level playing field while opponents think the bill will reduce oversight at a time when charters are expanding at a rapid rate.

The bottom line is the measure passed the House earlier this year and the Senate in late July. The bill now goes to the governor for signature.

Lastly, one other bill that deserves our attention is SB 456. The bill, introduced by Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph), was largely designed to correct an imbalance in how charter schools were funded at the local level.

An analysis of data from the North Carolina Treasurer’s Office and DPI found charter schools receive about 27 percent less than the statewide average of local current expense funding received by district students. Annually that amounts to about $33 million in lost revenue for charter schools. To remedy the problem, HB 456 restores that state’s original 1996 funding law so public charter schools receive the same funding levels as traditional public schools.

Other provisions in the bill relate to conflict of interest, how charter schools can expand, and anti-nepotism policies.

SB 456 passed the Senate but is still in committee in the House. It’s unlikely to pass this session but will likely be reintroduced.

Bob Luebke is Senior Policy Analyst for the Civitas Institute.