News: CJ Exclusives

Charter School Backers Worry About Gov’s Picks to Council

Perdue will appoint eight of 15 members to advisory group

Charter school advocates are glad to have a new commission to oversee the creation of new public charter schools. Even so, charter school backers are leery of who might be appointed.

The original version of Senate Bill 8 —which lifted the statewide cap on charter schools — called for the creation of an independent charter school commission to govern North Carolina’s public charter schools. Democrats claimed the commission was unconstitutional and eventually it was stripped from the bill. In the end, Democrats and Republicans compromised on a commission that would be purely “advisory” to the State Board of Education, rather than independent of it.

The state board took the first steps August 4 in creating such a commission. It will be called the North Carolina Public Charter School Advisory Council. It will be responsible for recommending charter school policies and developing standards for approval, rejection, renewal, and revocation of charters.

The council will have 15 members, eight appointed by the governor, three by the speaker of the House, three by president pro tem of the Senate, and one by the state superintendent of public instruction.

Charter school supporters worry who might be selected for the council by Gov. Bev Perdue and Superintendent June Atkinson, both Democrats who have at times opposed the expansion of charter schools.

Supporters, or ‘obstructionists’?

Eddie Goodall, a former state senator and president of the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is concerned that Perdue gets to make eight of the 15 appointments to the board. “So immediately we have one person, out of 10 million in the state, who determines the voting majority of the advisory council,” Goodall said.

In addition to having the most appointments, the governor has the most leeway as to whom she can appoint. While the heads of the House and Senate each must choose one person from the charter school community, one from the traditional school community, and one from somewhere else (such as a business leader), the governor can pick anyone from any field. So can Atkinson.

“The question is, are they going to be political appointments or appointments of people who want to see charter schools succeed?” Goodall asked. He had hoped the governor would have received six appointments, leaving Republican Speaker Thom Tillis and President Pro Tem Phil Berger with four each.

“I want to appoint a person who puts children first when making decisions and someone who has a background in running a successful school or business,” Atkinson told Carolina Journal. “I also want to recommend someone who can devote much time to the council’s work, especially during the time when applications must be reviewed. To date, I do not have a person in mind.”

Christine Mackey, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said “the governor is now considering candidates and will make her recommendations soon,” but did not say what sort of background Perdue believes her appointees should have.

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said he doesn’t care what background council members come from as long as they are not “enemies of charter schools.” Allison said he would like to see appointments of people from a variety of professions, such as business, accounting, and law, “as long as they are supportive of and sympathetic to charter schools.”

Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said he’s willing to give the governor and superintendent the benefit of the doubt. “Governor Perdue may be tempted to appoint obstructionists to the council, but I believe that she is smarter than that,” Stoops said.

Such a move, he said, could spur Republicans in the General Assembly to adopt new legislation creating an independent charter commission that would either reduce or eliminate the governor’s appointment power.

Republican bill sponsors had removed the independent commission from S.B. 8 to reduce its chances of being vetoed, but they “would like nothing more than for Perdue and her Democratic allies to give them a reason to revive the idea in a future legislative session,” Stoops said.

“If those appointed to the council choose to impede the charter school approval process, council members and the politicians that appointed them will have to answer to a growing, politically active charter school community,” Stoops added.

Bill sponsor Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, confirmed Stoops’ sentiment. “We’ll be watching very closely what the state board does in the next few months with this new council to see how serious they are about charter schools,” Stevens said.

He said the independent charter school commission — responsible for approving new charter applications — was one of the most important components stripped from the bill.

“We expect to see some new charters,” Stevens said. “So if we get 50 quality applications and [the council] approves two, we’ll be back talking to them in [next year’s] short session.”

“We believe in good faith they will honor the new law and allow the cap fully to be lifted,” Stevens said. “Sometimes there’s a big difference between a law being passed and how the administrators deal with it.”

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.