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Time to build on charter schools' successes

By Phil Kirk
For the Salisbury Post
While there are many important budget challenges facing this session of the North Carolina General Assembly, there are many other important issues which the legislators should address.
Revisions in the charter school legislation passed by the 1996 General Assembly need to be made as a result of the success of the charter school movement in our state.
While the mandated cap of only 100 charter schools for a state with 9.2 million people and more than 1 million students receives most of the attention, there are a number of other changes which need to be made to strengthen, expand, and improve the public charter schools in our state.
I have long been a supporter of providing some competition for the traditional public schools as long as the State Board of Education remains accountable for student progress in our state. No charter can be issued without the approval of the public schools governing board, and it also has the authority to close low-performing schools. Responsible charter school advocates accept the state board’s authority because it supports stricter accountability than the traditional public schools which do not face the threat of foreclosure. Also, since taxpayer money is involved, there must be high standards of accountability for the use of that money which essentially “follows the child” except when it comes to capital construction, transportation, fines and forfeitures, and lottery funds.
In the early days, the introduction of charter public schools into the North Carolina system was made possible because of the bipartisan support it received in the legislature. Sen. Wib Gulley (D-Durham) and Rep. Leo Daughtry (R-Johnston) led the effort, which was supported by the business community and some educators. Since Gulley left the legislature, there has been no visible bipartisan support and legislation to strengthen charter schools has received little attention or discussion.
The state wisely moved slowly in approving the first 100 charter schools; however, for the last five or so years there has been little activity in bringing new schools on line because the only “vacancies” were created by the voluntary or involuntary closing of existing schools. Because of the limited number of applications which could be approved, few were submitted because of the lack of available slots.
To date, 370 charter school applications have been received; 136 applications have been approved; 26 charters have been voluntarily relinquished; and 12 charters have been revoked by the state. North Carolina currently has 98 charter schools in operation in 48 counties.
State Board of Education Chairman Howard Lee created a Blue Ribbon Commission on Charter Schools last year. The commission, on which I was privileged to serve, made a number of significant recommendations.
While most charter school advocates would prefer there be no cap or a greatly expanded one, the commission looked at political reality in the Legislature and is suggesting that up to six new charters be approved each year and that high performing charter schools and the first charter school in a county be excluded from the cap. Proposed legislation would strengthen the composition of local governing boards for charter schools, in addition to sharing best practices for success among the state’s charter schools.
The state board would be charged with more vigorous oversight of charter schools. It has always been my view and that of most charter school advocates that the “bad apples” need to be eliminated from the ranks of the charter schools before they poison the support for the “good apples.”
There should also be legislation to assure that charter schools fulfill the original intent, and that is for them to be able to experiment without so many federal, state, and local rules and regulations. What worked and did not work would be shared with traditional public schools, and governing authorities would work to reduce those barriers to success. That has simply not happened in any organized way, according to local superintendents with whom I have spoken about this issue.
Much has been written about the quality of instruction in charter schools. I would submit that, just as with the traditional public schools, there are some outstanding charter schools, there are some low-performing schools, and there are many in “the middle of the pack.”
North Carolina’s legislators are urged to dust off their copies of the Blue Ribbon Commission report and move North Carolina ahead in the ranks of states which provide choice for students and parents whose needs are not being met in the traditional public schools.
President Obama recently again voiced his strong support increasing charter schools across the country, and North Carolina should heed his call.
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Phil Kirk is chairman emeritus of the State Board of Education and president/CEO emeritus of North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry. He is now vice president for external relations at Catawba College.

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