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The ASPIRA Association, a charter school operator at the heart of controversies in Chicago and Philadelphia, has filed three letters of intent to open charter schools in Mecklenberg, Union, and Iredell counties.

The NC Department of Public Instruction received 171 letters of intent last week from charter school operators keen on opening up new schools in time for fall of 2015 — the highest ever received since lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap in 2011.

ASPIRA is a national advocacy organization dedicated to developing the educational and leadership capacity of Hispanic youth. ASPIRA also supports the charter school movement in districts where significant numbers of Latino students are failing.

In Chicago, ASPIRA has run into allegations of financial corruption and misconduct at its charter schools. Last year, the CEO of ASPIRA Illinois, Jose Rodriguez, was fired by the charter operator’s board.

And in troubled Philadelphia, ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania owes more than $3 million to four charter schools it runs, according to the Philadelphia City Paper. That money, according to school district officials, is taxpayer funds intended to fulfill the purposes of the charters. The organization has also spent $17,000 to a union-busting law firm to deal with a “teacher unionization issue,” according to the City Paper.

The lack of accountability with regard to ASPIRA’s fiscal house comes at a time when Philadelphia is struggling to close a budget gap of more than $300 million, prompting the layoff of nearly 4,000 teachers, counselors and other staff.

The Philly school district’s Charter School Office, which is tasked with overseeing the financial health of charter schools, apparently provides minimal financial oversight according to a 2010 report by the city’s controller. The CSO reviews charter school financial operations just during the run up to the charter’s renewal–once every five years.

In North Carolina, public charter schools must seek renewal of their charters once every ten years, although some charter schools have received shorter terms due to academic or fiscal compliance issues.

“Each charter school must have an annual, independent audit that is submitted upstairs to the Division of School Business,” explained Joel Medley, Director of North Carolina’s Office of Charter Schools told NC Policy Watch.  “There are also monitoring site visits to verify student enrollment that are made on an as needed basis.”

North Carolina is no stranger to academic, ethical and financial problems associated with its public charter schools.

Earlier this year, the N.C. Policy Watch investigation  “’A factory of excellence’?” found that the public charter school Quality Education Academy recruited nationally and internationally for a basketball team that was subsidized by North Carolina taxpayers who have sent $13 million in education dollars to the school.

And just this past month, Kinston Charter Academy surrendered its charter moments before the State Board of Education was set to initiate the process of closing the school thanks to its serious financial and academic problems. More than 230 students were left to find new schools in just a few days’ time. Questions remain surrounding the school’s financial debts and whether or not the state will be repaid.

Calls went unreturned to ASPIRA of North Carolina and the national headquarters of ASPIRA in DC.

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Kinston Charter Academy surrendered its charter Wednesday afternoon, moments before the State Board of Education was set to initiate the revocation of its charter, which would have ultimately closed the school. More than 230 students must now find a new school to attend beginning Monday.

Kinston Charter Academy has had significant fiscal and academic problems. The school had a $347,000 deficit in 2007 and has been delinquent in payments to the NC Treasurer. Kinston Charter has also demonstrated inadequate growth in students’ academic performance, and has been noncompliant with Race to the Top requirements as well as federal requirements related to its Title I status. Cash flow problems have resulted in late payments for facilities and operations expenses.

Last year, Kinston Charter Academy’s reading proficiency score was 38.1% and math proficiency score was 36.4%. The state averages were 71.2% and 82.8% respectively.

The school does have a high poverty student population. Ninety-seven percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

State Board of Education member Buddy Collins said he’s concerned about the local school district, Lenoir County Public Schools, which must deal with the fallout of Kinston Charter Academy’s closing.

“Dumping 230 students into a small school district will cause financial problems,” said Collins. How will the school system ramp up its instructional staff to accommodate Kinston Charter’s students by Monday, once they have no school to attend, he inquired.

DPI officials said there were ways to get funds to the local school district quickly so they could hire the teachers they need.

A transition team is in place to help families and Lenoir County navigate the process of placing students into new schools.

WITN reports that Kinston Charter Academy’s principal sent a letter to parents asking them to immediately enroll their children in the local public school system or nearby Children’s Village Academy, another public charter school in Kinston.

Children’s Village Academy was close to losing its charter just a few months ago. That school has also had significant financial problems, but for now they remain open.

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The good folks at Public Schools First NC have issued a scathing review of the budget deal:

Public Schools First NC urges reconsideration of brutal cuts to public education
Proposed budget fails students and families while undermining North Carolina’s economic foundation

Raleigh, NC—July 22, 2013—Public Schools First NC is disappointed by the General Assembly’s aggressive attack against public education in its proposed biennial budget. By syphoning public dollars away for private school vouchers, slashing funds for teaching assistants, eliminating teacher professionalism and increasing class size, the budget strikes at the heart of proven strategies that lead to strong schools; adequate funding, small class sizes, and experienced educators. Read More

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Two bills that would significantly alter charter school policy in North Carolina were sent to conference committees in the House and Senate this week.

Senate Bill 337, which originally would have created an independent charter school board separate from the State Board of Education, failed a concurrence vote on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Sponsor of the bill, Sen. Jerry Tillman, called for non-concurrence, citing changes the House made that needed some work.

After considerable opposition to SB 337 from education leaders that include State Superintendent June Atkinson and McCrory’s new chair of the State Board of Education, Bill Cobey, Sen. Tillman introduced a new version of the bill to House colleagues that nixed the idea of an independent board overseeing charter schools.

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The Senate bill that would have created an independent charter school board separate from the NC State Board of Education goes for a third reading tonight in the House. In its current form, the legislation no longer creates a separate charter school board and requires that at least 50 percent of charter school teachers be licensed, an improvement from the proposed provision that would not require charters to hire any licensed teachers at all.

SB 337 changed dramatically from when it was first filed after tremendous pressure from state education leaders.

State Board of Ed Chairman Bill Cobey told NC Policy Watch he thought the bill was unconstitutional. Moving the charter school advisory council away from the State Board of Education’s direction could be in violation of its constitutional mandate to supervise and administer all publicly funded schools, including public charter schools.

NC State Superintendent June Atkinson told NC Policy Watch, “it’s not in the best interest of the state to have two separate boards.”

Changes to the bill also included preserving the requirement that charter schools reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the district which in they are located; however, that language was weakened in another charter school bill passed last week.

While no other changes to SB 337 are expected at this time, it’s possible the bill could be amended with some last-minute surprises. Stay tuned.