Legislators weigh separate oversight for charter schools

Mar. 27, 2013 @ 05:59 PM

RALEIGH — North Carolina legislators are considering greater separation between taxpayer-funded charter schools and the local or state boards of education which run the rest of the state's 2,500 public schools, making them more aggressive competitors for students and the money that follows.

The state Senate's education committee on Wednesday discussed legislation that would create new charter school rules and an oversight board independent from the State Board of Education. The new board would decide things like the financial accountability standards charter schools must follow, and how to treat those that aren't meeting expectations. The state school board could veto charter board actions within 45 days if three-quarters of the state board oppose it.

The measure would cancel the current requirement that at least half the teachers at a charter school be certified. Charter school directors could decide whether to check job applicants for any criminal history. Local school boards would be required to lease available buildings or land to a charter school for $1 a year, unless they can demonstrate it's not economically or practically feasible.

The changes are intended to give charter school operators more freedom to innovate, and to pressure other public schools to improve, too, said the bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph. The competition will force schools that fail to change to "die on the vine," he said.

"The market will determine that. And the market only works where you have choice. If you don't have anywhere else to go, you have no choice and the marketplace can't work," Tillman said. "Public schools, for the main, are doing a super-good job. Dropout rates are lower than they've ever been, and there's a lot of progress. There are lots of places where they're not making progress."

But setting up charter school with independent oversight drew warnings from some in a state where separate-but-unequal schools for decades divided children by race.

Despite efforts to recruit student populations that match their communities, too many charter schools are self-segregated by race, critics contend. Because many charters don't provide transportation or participate in the government-backed free lunch program for the needy, they are too often "a choice for the middle class and up," said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake.

Rocky Mount Preparatory School does provide students with transportation and free or reduced-price lunches, said Chief Executive Officer Doug Haynes. He said the changes sponsored by Republican senators were needed to restore the Legislature's original intent that the schools have the freedom to experiment with education.

"We're really regulated in many ways just like public schools," said Haynes, who heads one of the state's original charter schools from the mid-1990s that now enrolls more than 1,100 students. "It has become very difficult for us to innovate with things like teacher evaluations, certifications and other things to get greater accountability."

But charter school leaders aren't unanimous in backing the separation by types of public school.

Carl Forsyth, managing director of the five-year-old Voyager Academy Charter School in Durham, said the legislation slated for further committee discussion and changes next week should be rejected.

The proposed legislation "sets up a dual public school system within our state. It would create a negative climate of competition that would not benefit the children of North Carolina," said Forsyth, a former public school principal who now heads a charter school with 1,200 students in grades K-12. "Our schools will not improve if we pit public school educators against one other in a battle for students and scarce resources."