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Shell gameHundreds of school administrators gathered in Raleigh yesterday to review the state of public education and, not surprisingly, Gov. McCrory dodged the event and sent an assistant to what promised to be a not-terribly-friendly venue. That former Gov. Jim Hunt was speaking (he got a standing ovation at one point) probably helped guarantee that the Guv would have a “conflict” and decline the invitation to appear.

Another probable reason for sending aide Eric Guckian was the message he was forced to deliver — namely, that things are unlikely to improve in the education funding department anytime soon. According to AP reporter Emery Dalesio’s story, any significant improvements in educator pay beyond the bumps recently proposed for starting teachers will take “years” and will only occur “if state finances allow” — i.e. when Budget Director Pope assents. In other words, the beatings will continue until morale improves.

Of course, this is an absurd and utterly dishonest position. North Carolina could easily have a great deal of money to address many important needs (including the abysmal pay it provides to teachers and many other state employees) if McCrory and legislative leaders had merely chosen not to slash taxes on wealthy individuals and profitable corporations in recent years to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Simply put, the administration’s rap is like that of a father with a gambling or drinking addiction who refuses to make eye contact as he tells his family that there will be no new clothes or shoes this year because “finances are tight.” No wonder the Guv found something else to do yesterday.

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The state’s Office of Charter Schools issued a warning letter to Douglass Academy in Wilmington, whose enrollment numbers fall far short of the state’s minimum requirement of 65 — and if numbers don’t go up, the school’s charter could be revoked.

Founder of Douglass Academy, charter school operator Baker Mitchell, manages a total of three three charter schools in North Carolina through his ‘Roger Bacon Academy’ —  and he is hoping to open a fourth charter school this fall.

From the Star News in Wilmington:

Douglass Academy opened in August 2013 and has kindergarten and first- and second-grade students. Originally, the school was geared toward students living in low-income and public housing units, such as Jervay, Hillcrest, Houston Moore and Greenfield Village. Original plans were to build a new school along South 13th and Greenfield streets or to rent the old Lakeside High School building. But neither of those options worked, and the school decided to rent and renovate the Peabody Center at North Sixth and Red Cross streets.

Mitchell said the school’s struggles to find a building confused some parents who had originally enrolled their children in the school.

“We got tied up with a facility issue and really didn’t have a designated location until about four weeks before school started,” Mitchell said. “We wound up not making enrollment.”

That caused the state to place the school on governance cautionary status, which is the first step in a three-level warning system. The school has 30 days to correct its problems, according to state Board of Education policy. If it makes the corrections, the status is removed. If it fails to correct the issue, the school moves up to governance probationary status, the second warning.

Mitchell said all of Douglass Academy’s 33 students had re-enrolled for next school year and 63 new students had also enrolled.

“We should start off next year with a minimum of 96 students,” he said.

Douglass Academy officials will be required to go before the Office of Charter Schools and the N.C. Charter School Advisory Council on Monday to explain the low enrollment numbers.

Baker Mitchell also sits on the N.C. Charter School Advisory Council, the body tasked with reviewing charter school applications and making recommendations to the State Board of Education for which applicants should be green lighted to open charter schools.

Last week, local lawmakers and community leaders got a tour of Douglass Academy that was sponsored by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. AFP aimed to showcase alternative education possibilities now that the cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in the state has been lifted. Americans for Prosperity head John Dudley was unaware the school was under a warning.

Mitchell, who has collected in the neighborhood of $16 million in taxpayer funds over the past five years for managing the two other charter schools in southeastern North Carolina, is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General. Details of the case have not been made public.

Edward Pruden, Superintendent for Brunswick County Schools, theorizes that the investigation has to do with improper enrollment practices. Boosting enrollment numbers would direct more state funding to Mitchell’s charter schools.

“According to information Brunswick County Schools received, the basis of the alleged investigation was that Charter Day School … used improper means to encourage homeschooled and private school students to enroll during the first few days of school to increase the average daily membership,” Pruden wrote in a letter he sent to the State Board of Education.

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Another “must read” from over the weekend is this essay by Duke University Divinity School professor, Amy Laura Hall in the Durham Herald-Sun. In it, she make the forceful and on-the-money argument that all the talk of a “broken” education system is akin to the scare tactics employed by the evil Mr. Potter in the the classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life:

“’Broken?’  Think about it.  Is that the right word for the man who mopped up vomit when a second-grader overindulged in Halloween candy?  Or the woman who remembered my daughter’s cafeteria account number when her little fourth grade mind was otherwise engaged, busy wiggling her newly loose tooth?  Or the cop at the high school who has to deal with one more confounded fender-bender resulting from teens ‘checking one another out’ rather than carefully backing out? To borrow from a cute pop song, the public school system’s ‘not broken, just bent.’  The question we ought to ask is this: Who bent it? Read More

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ICYMI, Brunswick County Public Schools official Jessica Swencki has a great essay in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer in which she explains what’s really driving a large and growing segment of the charter school movement: private, for-profit companies out to milk the public coffers.

“In North Carolina, charter schools are operated by ‘nonprofit’ corporations, which are not subject to the same laws that demand public accountability for state and local tax dollars. These ‘nonprofit’ corporations can be subsidiaries of larger for-profit corporations – all the nonprofit corporation needs is a ‘board’ of purportedly earnest, well-intentioned people during the application process. Once the charter is granted, there is very little to stop the potential exploitation of our state’s limited public education resources.

In fact, one doesn’t have to look any further than the Eastern part of the state for a case study in how savvy companies use this loosely regulated system to pocket millions of taxpayer dollars.

Click here to read the rest of Swencki’s explanation of how this scam works.

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It’s been  a year of radical and frequently destructive change in the world of public education in North Carolina and Policy Watch reporter Lindsay Wagner has a great summary of nine top stories over on the main site. For example:

1. Tax dollars now can be funneled to unaccountable private (and home) schools.

Lawmakers passed a budget last July that allows parents to send their kids to private schools with annual taxpayer-funded $4,200 vouchers. Dubbed “Opportunity Scholarships,” the program was championed by Rep. Skip Stam, who believes that all parents should be able to send their kids to any school on the taxpayer’s dime—even if that school teaches kids that dinosaurs walked the earth with man or the KKK was just a band of moral-minded folks.

On tap for 2014: We’ll keep you posted on the roll out of the school voucher program, which will begin accepting applications in February in anticipation of its Fall 2014 start date. Stay tuned for developments in the school voucher lawsuit that was just filed by 25 teachers who oppose using taxpayer dollars to fund private education. And read my most recent story about one home school that’s classified as a private school by the state, allowing it to receive vouchers too.

Click here to read the other eight.