Senate considers creation of new public charter school board

Today, the Senate Education Committee took up SB 337, “NC Public Charter School Board,” a bill filed by Senators Jerry Tillman and Dan Soucek that is intended to remove oversight of public charter schools from the State Board of Education and put it in the hands of a new, independent entity comprising members handpicked by the Governor.

Tillman explained that the bill was necessary due to alleged dysfunction within the current system that is in place. He said the Charter School Advisory Council should be eliminated because there has been friction and there are two sides that do not work well together, do not have good sharing of ideas, and “we need a new cast of players.”

Tillman deferred to legislative staff to explain the details of the bill as amended by Sen. Apodaca. Some of the many provisions included:

  • The proposed NC Public Charter School Board would include nine appointed members by the Governor, the President Pro Tem of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. Two ex-officio members would be the Lieutenant Governor and the State Treasurer, creating 11 voting members. The State Superintendent of Public Instruction would serve as the Secretary and the sole non-voting member.
  • The State Board of Education would have the ability to veto by a three-fourths vote any action adopted by the Charter Board if the State Board’s veto vote is taken within 45 days of  the date the Charter Board voted to adopt the action.
  • Charter school applicants would no longer be able to submit applications to LEAs or their local school boards.
  • Local school boards would be required to lease available buildings or land to a charter school for $1 per year unless they can demonstrate the lease is not economically or practically feasible or that the local board does not have adequate classroom space to meet its enrollment needs.
  • The Charter Board would be able to establish fees for charter applications.
  • Charter school operators would not be accountable to local boards of education, only accountable to the state charter board.
  • If a charter school is dissolved, assets would be returned to the state’s General Fund, not to the LEA.
  • Charter schools shall “make efforts to reasonably reflect” the racial and ethnic composition of the LEA in which they are located. The language weakens this previous requirement.

The question period started off on an interesting note when Senator Robinson sought clarification on how the current members of the Charter School Advisory Council are chosen. “Well, since it’s being abolished…I really don’t care,” Tillman responded.

SB 337 would also remove the requirement that at least half of a charter school’s teaching staff be certified. Ed Pruden, Brunswick County Public Schools Superintendent who spoke in opposition of the bill, said “students in charter schools also deserve highly qualified teachers. Why does this bill weaken requirements for teacher licensure in charter schools?”

Tillman addressed the issue of teacher quality, saying “I have a high school in my district and a pharmacist wanted to teach chemistry there. But he couldn’t because he wasn’t ‘highly qualified’,” implying that advanced degrees are by default an appropriate substitute for pedagogical training.

Senators Allran and Robinson raised concerns about why the bill would make it optional for charter schools to conduct criminal background checks for prospective employees. “You’re talking about children. Seems like something that would be the minimum you would do,” said Allran. Tillman dismissed his concerns, effectively saying that he didn’t want to micromanage the schools and that many would do the background checks anyway.

Sen. Bryant raised the possibility that the new board would be comprised of members who may present a conflict of interest if they are to be heavily invested in the success and profit of charter schools. “Will they have an easy time of getting their charters established? Is there any protection against conflicts of interests,” asked Bryan?

“If you trust your Senate, your House, your Governor, your Lieutenant Governor, and your Treasurer to appoint them, then it’s fine,” said Tillman.

Pressing on, Bryant asked “Money talks. Are you open to considering conflict of interest provisions?” to which Tillman said he would not at this time.

Senator Stein put forward amendments to address the issue that charter schools are not a real choice for low income families. “They [charters] don’t provide transportation for low-income students…so really, it’s not a choice.” Stein said that for charter schools to really work so every child has a chance to access innovation there has to be a requirement for transportation and food provided if you are low-income.

During the public comment period, members heard from supporters and opponents of the bill. Baker Mitchell, incoming chairman of NC Alliance for Public Charter Schools and board member of the John Locke Foundation, expressed his full support of the bill on behalf of the Alliance.

Mitchell has served on the Charter School Advisory Council and owns The Roger Bacon Academy, which is contracted to run two public charter schools in Brunswick County. In the 2009-10 fiscal year, Mitchell received more than $3 million from the two charter schools for management fees and the cost of renting the buildings from another company Mitchell owns, according to publicly available copies of the charter school’s tax returns, as reported by NC Policy Watch’s Sarah Ovaska.

Leigh Bordley, member of Durham Public Schools Board of Ed, spoke as a parent, asking that the bill strengthen the language regarding transportation. “Parents who can’t transport kids can’t apply for charters. Parents also have to decide between whether their kids will eat or attend a charter school.” Bordley also decried the weakening of teacher quality standards in the bill.

SB 337 will be heard in committee again, likely with Senator Stein’s amendments.

For background and analysis of the bill, see Rob Schofield’s story over at NC Policy Watch.

**Note: this post was updated to clarify that charter applicants would no longer be able to submit their applications to LEAs or local school boards. They were never under obligation to do so, but previously had the ability to submit applications locally. Now, the only route for application would be through the proposed state-level charter board.

We regret the error.

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