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House panel OKs charter school growth bill, corporate “perks” for charter partners

A divided House Education Committee gave their approval Monday to a pair of controversial charter school bills, one of which will allow charters to expand student enrollment by up to 30 percent with no additional state review of their performance and finances.

The second proposal, House Bill 800, led by Rep. John Bradford, R-Mecklenburg, would speed “perks” for private charter school partners by providing their children enrollment priority for up to half of the school’s population, a provision that critics likened to making public charters into “de facto, segregated private schools.”

“To me, this is just a step too far away from the public aspect of public charter schools,” said Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat representing Durham and Orange counties. “This is setting up something that feels proprietary in nature.”

Both bills provoked the ire of committee Democrats; both were voted through with a Republican majority.

According to Bradford’s bill, charter partners includes private companies that donate land or infrastructure to charter schools, as well as companies that provide renovations or technology to the schools.

“This is something they can give to their employees,” said Bradford. “Their employees will be happy and their kids will be in good schools.”

Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange

But Meyer said the provision subverts the intention of keeping charter schools accessible to all students, suggesting it would allow some charters to be turned into “company” schools.

Bradford rejected that criticism, calling the proposal a “no-brainer,” shortly before the divided panel approved the legislation, which will now go to a House finance committee before it sees the full House floor.

Meanwhile, the version passed Monday strips language that would direct county commissioners to control funding appropriations to charters within their district, a proposal that had the seeming support of school district advocates.

The current method, under which local school districts are charged with turning over state funds to charters, has prompted lawsuits and acrimony over the last decade.

Committee lawmakers also signed off on a major charter reform bill, House Bill 779, that, among its provisions, gives charter operators the power to expand enrollment by up to 30 percent without requiring the approval of the state’s charter office and the State Board of Education, an idea hotly criticized as reducing quality control measures in the state’s booming charter sector.

Republican backers called the bill, which trims an earlier GOP proposal clearing enrollment growth by up to 40 percent, a “compromise,” although the language still represents a major increase on the 20 percent threshold set today.

“Parents are making the decision,” said Rep. Mark Brody, R-Anson, Union, who co-sponsored the measure. “They are the true judges of how our education system works.”

Democratic critics, however, pointed out that the legislation would allow rapid growth among charters with no additional state review of whether charters’ finances are in order or if students are performing up to par.

Rep. Bobbie Richardson, D-Franklin, Nash

“Expanding beyond 20 percent without those criteria would not be fair to taxpayers, parents or students that are going to attend these schools,” said Rep. Bobbie Richardson, a Democrat and retired public school administrator representing Franklin and Nash counties.

Monday’s meeting included one major point of confusion after several Republicans backing the bill suggested the proposal would only grant such speedy growth for successful charters, although Democrats pointed out no guarantees are provided in the proposal.

“It would allow a charter school to grow even if it’s a failing charter school,” said Meyer.

The legislation was also criticized last week by Bill Cobey, the Republican chairman of the State Board of Education, which has final say on charter applications today, although no representative from the Department of Public Instruction was on hand to address either bill.

In a letter to committee lawmakers this weekend, Matt Ellinwood, director of the Education and Law Project at the N.C. Justice Center, a progressive Raleigh nonprofit, told legislators the bill may only lessen North Carolina’s ability to ensure quality charter openings.

“Allowing schools that are low-performing and/or financially mismanaged to grow this quickly would dilute the quality of charter schools and increase the number of students being served by low-performing schools and schools that are at increased risk of closure due to financial problems,” Ellinwood wrote.

(Disclosure: N.C. Policy Watch is a project of the N.C. Justice Center). 

House Bill 779 will need approval from the House Appropriations Committee before it reaches the House floor.

Monday’s meeting kicked off a week of furious legislative negotiations as state lawmakers work to rush through bills before Thursday’s crossover deadline. That’s the date by which most bills must be approved by at least one full chamber to be considered further this session.

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