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State Board of Education chair on charter expansion bill: “Not a good idea.”

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey

Education lawmakers in the N.C. General Assembly are planning a full spate of votes next week in the final days before the legislature’s crossover deadline, including myriad charter reforms, school construction leasing, teacher licensing updates and changes to the state’s much-criticized method of classifying low-performing schools.

But one of the state’s most influential education leaders criticized at least one key proposal before a House committee Monday that would allow existing charters to expand their enrollment by as much as 40 percent without state approval.

“To automatically increase by up to 40 percent, as much of a supporter as I am of charter schools, I do think there are limits that need to be in place,” State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey told Policy Watch Thursday.

Cobey, a Republican appointee to the state board by former Gov. Pat McCrory, oversees a panel that has the final say on pending charter school applications today.

State law currently allows charters to increase enrollment by up to 20 percent and, in some cases, add an additional grade level without state vetting, but some GOP school choice supporters are seeking further sweeteners for North Carolina’s booming charter school sector.

The draft bill, filed by Republican Representatives Linda Hunt Williams and Mark Brody, comes with Cobey’s board hearing calls in recent years to increase scrutiny of charter schools following a series of high-profile closings and a diploma scandal at Durham’s Kestrel Heights School.

Cobey emphasized that his board doesn’t have an official position on the legislation, but he’s opposed to such a broad concession to charters.

Charters are publicly-funded schools given greater flexibility over staffing and curriculum than traditional schools. They are also managed by unelected boards and private groups rather than elected officials, but they’ve become a cornerstone of school choice reforms across North Carolina and the U.S., often clashing with traditional school systems over state funding.

“I think the idea of giving them 20 percent was probably a good idea,” said Cobey. “It certainly cut down on our workload. But anybody that wants to go over 20 percent, they can make their case to the Charter School Advisory Board. If they think that it’s a good idea, they’ll recommend it to us.”

The legislation, along with a slew of other GOP-backed K-12 reforms, is slated for hearings before a House education committee early next week. The bills would require the approval of the full chamber by the April 27 crossover deadline to be considered going forward.

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