News: CJ Exclusives

Attendees at Charter Schools Conference Show Intense Interest in Public Schools of Choice

Experts, lawmakers urge charter advocates to be more vocal

Representatives from more than half the state’s charter schools gathered in Raleigh July 11-13 to network, confer, and get organized for what promises to be a pivotal year for charter schools in North Carolina.

Led by the North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the event marks the first time in the 14-year history of charter schools in the state that school leaders have come together on such a large scale to address common problems and plan for the future.

Pro-charter legislation, including efforts to raise the cap of 100 charter schools currently in place, went nowhere in the recently completed session of the General Assembly. Instead, legislators passed a budget containing provisions making it easier for local school districts to keep funding that state courts consistently have ruled should be paid to charters, and letting districts take up to three years to pay charters any money owed from previous cases.

Meanwhile, the State Board of Education has taken a recent series of steps that are seen as anti-charter. The special committee on the board that handled charter issues and served as an advocate for charter schools was disbanded, the periods for renewing a charter were cut back from 10 years to as little as three, and a new, more strenuous policy on academic achievement was instituted. These steps were taken with no input from or consultation with the charter school community.

Conference organizers focused on what individual schools can do to promote the growth of high-quality charter schools. Alliance President Eddie Goodall wrote in his welcome letter to conferees that it’s time for the charter community to “walk out of the shadows and into the sunshine and become a force for educational choice and competition.”

Attorney Richard Vinroot, who successfully has sued several school districts for unlawfully withholding state money owed to charter schools, briefed conferees on charter school funding issues and related litigation. Vinroot said the recently passed state budget contained a provision “legalizing” some of the techniques that school districts had been using to “hide” funds that should have been shared with local charter schools.

“The courts have consistently held that any funds that school districts receive and deposit in their current expense accounts are to be shared” with charter schools, said Vinroot, yet some districts “continue to try to avoid complying with the law.” Vinroot currently is working on litigation on the withholding of funds to charters involving Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools.

Vinroot said charter schools often don’t realize they’re not receiving all the funds they are legally entitled to, since district officials are in charge of dividing up the money and are sometimes less than forthcoming with the details of how they do it. Getting the appropriate level of funding from their local districts is an “enormous challenge sometimes,” he said.

The conference wrapped up on July 13 with a visit to the General Assembly to meet with lawmakers interested in charter schools. Republican Sens. Richard Stevens and Neal Hunt, along with Democratic Sen. Doug Berger and Republican Rep. Nelson Dollar, spoke with attendees about the prospects for charter-friendly legislation going forward. Sen. Berger reminded the conferees that while charter schools are often seen as a “Republican” or “conservative” issue, the concept initially was “a liberal Democratic idea.”

He said he believes there is a growing realization within the Democratic caucus that charter schools could be a part of the overall solution to the state’s problems in education. “We just have to keep reaching out to lawmakers to educate them about charter schools,” Berger said.

All the lawmakers agreed that charter school advocates need to be more active in communicating their needs to elected officials, and all stressed the importance of inviting their senators and representatives to visit their schools and see firsthand what the charters are doing for children.

In a later session, House Minority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam gave the conferees some tips on how best to get the attention of elected officials. “I call this the rule of 10s,” he said. Noting that a legislator’s day is very busy and his time limited, he said “A personalized e-mail is worth 10 of those mass e-mailings that all have the same subject” and virtually identical text. A phone call is worth about 10 personalized e-mails, and an office visit worth about 10 phone calls, he said.

“If you really want to get someone’s attention, a face-to-face visit is worth about 10 phone calls,” he said. “And a visit with a lawmaker in his home district is 10 times more effective than a visit to his office in Raleigh.”

Conference attendees included a cross-section of the charter community — charter school teachers, administrators, and board members, and many reported that they were drawn to the conference by concerns over the direction the state seemed to be taking on charter schools.

The 250 conferees also attended breakout sessions on topics ranging from school governance to best practices for the classroom.

Jim Stegall is a contributor to Carolina Journal.