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The once semi-prevalent illusion that the charter school movement is somehow about aiding public education and not just privatizing it continues to fall apart. The latest confirmation comes from the Wilmington Star-News which which has still more news on the stubborn and absurd refusal of charter school chain owned by conservative power broker Baker Mitchell to release information on the salaries it pays its staff:

“The nonprofit Charter Day School Inc. has yet to comply fully with media requests for the salaries of its employees.

Missing from the list school officials released Friday are 33 employees – including headmasters, assistant headmasters and many lead teachers at Charter Day School in Leland, Columbus Charter School in Whiteville and Douglass Academy in Wilmington. Read More

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ICYMI, the Wilmington Star-News hits the nail on the head with this editorial on transparency in charter schools. After noting efforts by local charter school boss and all-purpose right-wing crusader Baker Mitchell to keep details of his Roger Bacon Academy secret, the editorial says this:

“The state Senate is considering a bill that would make it abundantly clear that Mitchell and other charter school owners and operators are bound by North Carolina’s public records and open-meetings laws. Period. The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday passed the bill that clarifies that point, as well as one that is intended to ensure that charter school proposals are not rejected arbitrarily.

But some Honorables have made noise about deleting the disclosure provision – the one that is supposed to assure taxpayers that their education dollars are being spent to educate children, not to enrich private companies being paid by the state to compete with public schools.

They should leave it in, and Gov. Pat McCrory should refuse to sign any bill that does not unequivocally state that charter schools, funded overwhelmingly by taxpayers’ money, are subject to the same disclosure rules as “other” public schools.

Of all people, Republican lawmakers who rode into office decrying wasteful government spending surely recognize that the best remedy for that thing they so despise is transparency – especially when it comes to how tax dollars are spent.”

Read the entire editorial by clicking here.

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If you follow education news in North Carolina, there’s a lot to keep your eyes on this week.

The week kicks off with Moral Monday, which is focused on education. A pre-rally meeting begins at 3pm in the legislative auditorium of the General Assembly building, followed by a 4pm press conference. The actual rally takes place at 5pm on the Halifax Mall — follow #SchooltheNCGA on Twitter for live updates. I’ll be tweeting from there too — follow me @LindsayWagnerNC.

The House budget is expected to be released tomorrow, and possibly as soon as this evening. Tillis and other House GOP leaders will present their budget tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. in the press conference room of the Legislative Building (Room 1328).

Tillis’ comments at the state Republican convention this weekend suggested that he’s more comfortable with the Governor’s budget rather than the Senate’s, so we will see if teachers’ raises are a little lower than the Senate’s proposal, cuts to the rest of the education budget are fewer than the Senate’s, and the UNC system ends up taking that $49 million hit that McCrory suggested to pay for teachers’ raises. Look for stories from N.C. Policy Watch that will take a close look at the House’s budget proposal.

As the House considers whether or not to strip the state of second and third grade classroom TAs, the N&O published this story over the weekend about how Sen. Phil Berger’s justification for scaling TAs back comes from research out of Tennessee, which found that pupils in small classes of 13-17 students did better than those who were in larger classes of 22-25 students staffed with teacher assistants.

Last year, the General Assembly lifted the cap on classroom size and many elementary teachers grapple with classrooms filled with twenty students or more. The research didn’t look at the comparison between the academic outcomes of students in large classrooms with teacher assistants and in large classrooms with only one teacher and no help to manage the chaos.

The disclosure of salaries for public charter school employees was a hot topic last week that will be revisited again by the Senate education committee on Wednesday. At issue is whether or not charter school operators should have to disclose what they pay their teachers and other staff, even though the State Board of Education requires them to be subject to the N.C. Public Records law in their authorization process.

In an initial version of the bill, SB 793 sought to codify the State Board’s rule that charter schools be subject to the Public Records Act — but that language was stripped from a committee substitute bill last week. The Senate education committee will take it up for a vote on Wednesday at 10 a.m.

ICYMI: Last week the big story was Common Core, with the full House voting on a bill that would repeal the academic standards that North Carolina has spent millions of dollars to implement, while the Senate passed its own version of the bill that left a little more room for Common Core to stay in place — but comments from Sen. Jerry Tillman indicated he’d probably find a way to make sure that didn’t happen. Stay tuned to see how it all shakes out when the two houses duke it out in committee, some time in the next few weeks.

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In case you missed the news earlier this month, Salon highlighted a new report out by the Center for Popular Democracy and Integrity in Education that examines 15 states representing large charter school markets — and found instances of fraud, waste and abuse at charters totaling $100 million in taxpayer funds.

From Salon:

Perhaps most disturbingly, under the first category, crooked charter school officials displayed a wide range of lavish, compulsive or tawdry tastes. Examples include:

• Joel Pourier, former CEO of Oh Day Aki Heart Charter School in Minnesota, who embezzled $1.38 million from 2003 to 2008. He used the money on houses, cars, and trips to strip clubs. Meanwhile, according to an article in the Star Tribune, the school “lacked funds for field trips, supplies, computers and textbooks.”

• Nicholas Trombetta, founder of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School is accused of diverting funds from it for his private purchases. He allegedly bought houses, a Florida Condominium and a $300,000 plane, hid income from the IRS, formed businesses that billed even though they had done no work, and took $550,000 in kickbacks for a laptop computer contract.

• A regular financial audit in 2009 of the Langston Hughes Academy in New Orleans uncovered theft of $660,000 by Kelly Thompson, the school’s business manager. Thompson admitted that from shortly after she assumed the position until she was fired 15 months later, she diverted funds to herself in order to support her gambling in local casinos.

Others spent their stolen money on everything from a pair of jet skis for $18,000 to combined receipts of $228 for cigarettes and beer, to over $30,000 on personal items from Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Louis Vuitton, Coach and Tommy Hilfiger. But the real damage came from the theft of resources for children’s future.

The end goal of the report, say its authors, is to warn the public about the increasing risk that communities and taxpayers face by having an inadequately regulated charter industry.

Despite rapid growth in the charter school industry, no agency, federal or state, has been given the resources to properly oversee [charter schools]. Given this inadequate oversight,we worry that the fraud and mismanagement that has been uncovered thus far might be just the tip of the iceberg.
Read the full report here.
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lw-410In North Carolina, many have criticized the review process for charter school applications, pointing out the subjective metrics for determining which applications move forward and the lack of a process for an applicant to appeal their application’s denial.

This week, lawmakers introduced draft legislation contained in a committee report recommending ways to improve the charter school application review process.

If enacted, the law would require the following:

  • For the initial review of a charter school application by a Charter School Advisory Board subcommittee: written decisions for an initial recommendation to move forward or a denial, which must include specific factual support and be transmitted to the applicant.
  • Appeal process: applicants would be allowed to appeal an initial denial with supplemental written information. (No appeal process currently exists.)
  • Final recommendation for approval or denial: must be backed up with factual support
  • Final appeal: applicant would be able to make a final appeal to the State Board of Education with written information and petition the State Board for a hearing.

In addition to clarifying the application review process, the law also emphasizes that the State Board of Education must engage in a rules making process with regard to all aspects of charter school operation, including standards, criteria for acceptance, monitoring, etc. While that requirement to engage in rules making has been on the books for some time, it hasn’t formally happened yet.

The law would also increase charter school application fees to $1,000 – the current fee is $500 – and require the State Board to make final decisions on applications no later than June 15.

Finally, the law makes clear that public charter schools must do the same thing that traditional public schools are required to do – and that’s comply with the Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Law.

In the past, some charter school operators objected to disclosing employee salaries – but if they do that going forward, they’d be breaking the law.

Stay tuned to see how the draft legislation ends up during the next legislative session, which — can you believe it — starts this coming Wednesday, May 14!

Get some rest this weekend, political junkies.