News: CJ Exclusives

Black charter school operators worry about new state regs

Charter leaders suggest some state rules seek to penalize schools rather than help them improve

School-choice advocate and former state Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, seen here speaking before a legislative hearing in April, says some charter school operators should be concerned about excessive state regulations. (CJ photo by Barry Smith)
School-choice advocate and former state Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, seen here speaking before a legislative hearing in April, says some charter school operators should be concerned about excessive state regulations. (CJ photo by Barry Smith)

Some North Carolina charter school operators feel that state officials are “nitpicking” and piling on regulations, actions that not only hamper their ability to operate their schools but also counter many of the purposes of charter schools.

“We’re supposed to be innovative and creative in order to make things happen,” said Eugene Slocum, administrator at Alpha Academy in Fayetteville and a founding member of Black-Led Schools of Choice, a group seeking to address unique challenges facing public charter schools run by African-Americans.

“It’s very difficult to do those things when you’re under the same exact guidelines and additional guidelines,” Slocum said. “We’re being tied and constricted a little bit further, more than the traditional schools and still not getting those resources. … Stop with the constant restrictions and nitpicking on the things that we do.”

Charter schools are public schools that generally operate with fewer regulations than traditional public schools. Each has its own board of directors, and operates independently of local school boards. While the schools get operating expense money from state and local governments, unlike district-run public schools, charter schools don’t get local capital expense money to construct or renovate schools. Charters have to pay for their facilities from their allocations for operations or money they raise separately.

Slocum and other members of BLSC are hoping for better communications with the State Board of Education and the Charter School Advisory Board. They say they often aren’t aware of new regulations before they’re discussed or even put in place.

One regulation cited by BLSC requires charter schools to report student suspensions or expulsions to the school system the student would be attending if he or she weren’t going to a charter school. The charter agreement with the state board allows the board to terminate the school’s charter for failure to meet the reporting requirement.

Simon Johnson, administrator at the Quality Education Academy in Winston-Salem, said “that specific item really reflects overkill and the punishment not fitting the crime. … The real issue is this constant encroachment of the freedom of charter schools,” he added. “What has happened over the years is regulation after regulation has been passed unilaterally without any input from the charter members.”

The master charter agreement with the State Board of Education states that a charter may be terminated for a “material violation of any of the conditions, standards, or procedures set forth in the charter.”

Regulations, he said, are steering charter schools to behave more like traditional public schools, even though their purpose “was to do something different than traditional public schools. If you’re going to burden charter schools with the very same thing that the traditional public schools are burdened with, then you need not expect anything any different.”

Cynthia McQueen, administrator at Torchlight Academy in Raleigh, said getting loans to pay for buildings can be difficult, especially for schools that service at-risk children. The state renews charters for different periods of time, which can hamper charter schools serving an at-risk population, she said.

“We, for subjective reasons, got a two-year renewal one time,” McQueen said. “We unfortunately were not able to get the funds to build a building for needy children. … But then, by the grace of God and hard work, we received a 10-year renewal and as a result got a bank loan and are building a brand new building for our at-risk population.”

Other leaders said that omissions, such as leaving a director’s email address or phone number off a report, have prompted letters to the charter schools demanding compliance.

Susan Slocum, also of Fayetteville’s Alpha Academy, said that the omission of an address update on an application “ends up being a financial warning” by the Office of Charter Schools. “One small thing could be something that could keep you from getting a loan,” she said.

Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said the State Board of Education has pretty broad authority to terminate a charter contract, though he doubts the state board would close a charter school simply for a reporting omission.

“In most cases the Office of Charter Schools will work with the individual schools to ensure that they meet all reporting requirements, financial reporting requirements, and any other sort of data points that the State Board of Education or the General Assembly deem necessary for individual schools to report,” Stoops said. “Only if there is a continual failure to meet the requirements that are set forth by state and federal law and the State Board of Education would a charter school ever encounter the possibility of having their charter revoked.”

Usually, the State Board of Education uses reporting requirements to ensure schools comply with applicable state and federal laws, Stoops said.

Marcus Brandon, a former Democratic state representative from Guilford County, thinks the charter leaders have a beef.

“That is a huge problem,” said Brandon, executive director of CarolinaCAN, an education reform advocacy group. He said the problem disproportionately affects smaller charter schools.

“The Office of Charter Schools often acts like an ‘I got you’ thing instead of ‘I’ll help you’ thing,” Brandon said. “That’s a big problem for all of the charters, but especially for the small charters.”

Brandon said a lot of the black-led schools get students who are not academically proficient at their grade level when they enroll, and unlike private schools, public charter schools must accept anyone who applies if space is available. Often, as a result, the charter schools’ overall test scores are low.

“The state actually says this is punishable,” Brandon said.

The BLCS leaders say they don’t intend to point fingers, but instead are hoping that the Office of Charter Schools and State Board of Education will seek their input when considering new regulations.