Bills in NC House would bolster charter schools
RALEIGH (AP) — Local school boards would have the authority to create charter schools and form more flexible arrangements with district-run schools under a pair of bills in the North Carolina House.
The bills, sponsored by a Republican lawmaker and supported by Democrats, are intended to help bridge the divide between public and charter schools, which even critics acknowledge are a fixture of the education landscape that’s here to stay.
The first bill would allow local school boards to approve charters and convert their own schools to a charter format. Under existing law, local boards can grant preliminary approval, but ultimate authority lies with the State Board of Education. The program would start on a trial run of up to 10 districts that would maintain oversight of the charters.
The second bill would allow districts to create schools operating under special curricula, budgets and admissions criteria. That’s currently possible only with failing district schools. The so-called satellite schools would be able to experiment with different pay models, and districts could petition the State Board to waive the requirement that at least 50 percent of the school’s staff hold instructional certifications.
Charter schools are publicly funded but operate under their own independent boards, leaving them free to experiment with curriculum, instructional practices and teacher pay as long as they’re continuing to meet state standards.
North Carolina, which has seen expansion of charters since the General Assembly lifted the 100-school cap in 2011, wouldn’t be the first state to allow multiple independent authorizers for all applications. In the Southeastern U.S., Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina already offer fully independent choices to charter operators.
Supporters of charter schools say they have the freedom to produce results as shown in standardized tests. Critics say charters drain money from public schools that depend on per-student dollars, compete on an unfair basis and don’t adequately serve students with special needs.
Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth and the lead sponsor of both bills, said his legislation helps ensure that the goal of infusing public schools with new ideas from their charter-school counterparts is being met.
“The original purpose of charter schools was to offer some flexibility and be innovative and creative, and take the best of the things they learned and transfer them into the public school environment,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve met that goal.”
While helping public schools, the charters could improve student services through access to transportation, lunch programs, special education resources and other help from partnerships with districts, said Don Martin, superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and president of the state’s Superintendents’ Association. He helped craft the policy memo that led to the bill.
“If you need transportation, need food service, and many times if you’re in special education or you don’t speak English, you’re not going to choose a school that doesn’t offer any of that,” he said.
The bill has met with initial approval from some charter organizations as well as groups that have been critical of their growth in the past.
Christopher Hill, director of the Education & Law Project of the N.C. Justice Center, said his group continues to press policymakers to move away from high-stakes testing emphasized by charter schools, but he supports the bill.
“I would say if it’s is going to do what charters intended in the first place, which is to use fewer regulations to bring innovations to the public, then that’s fantastic,” he said.
Margaret Foreman, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Association of Educators, said she wants some changes to ensure that district teachers who make the switch to a charter could hold on to tenure status and that school committees include representation from a broad swath of people, but the bill holds promise.
“Charter schools are pretty much here, and we need to find to a way to collaboratively work together,” she said.
Eddie Goodall, director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, said he wants to clarify the conditions under which a local school board could revoke a charter, but he supports the bill because it gives more choices for those trying to start a school.
“A charter applicant could go to that (local board) if they wanted to form partnership with busing and meals,” he said. “That’s not a bad thing at all. We want that now.”
Lambeth’s other bill could open the door to more independent district schools that partner with local hospitals or businesses and offer job-shadowing or internships, said Leanne Winner, a lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association.
Foreman’s group has expressed discomfort with a portion of that bill that restricts tenure within those schools, but Lambeth said he’s willing to compromise and doesn’t see what’s called “career status” as a serious barrier to education reform.
The bills haven’t yet been scheduled for committee. Lambeth said action must come soon if they’re expected to get a hearing this session, but he doesn’t think the ideas will fall out of attention.