News: CJ Exclusives

Charter School Champions Balk at Bill to Raise Cap

Reforms that impose new regulations not acceptable to charter advocates

RALEIGH — Fifteen years after granting North Carolina citizens the right to create charter schools, state legislative and policy leaders finally may be ready to allow some growth in the number of these innovative schools of choice. But the charter school community is far from satisfied with the growth plans lawmakers have come up with so far.

A bill to raise the cap of 100 charter schools by six passed the state House of Representatives last summer and is now eligible for consideration by the Senate. While raising or eliminating the cap long has been a goal of charter school advocates, some of those same supporterr say there are devils in the details of the bill.

State Sen. Eddie Goodall, R-Union, president of the North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is happy to see some consideration of raising the cap. In an exclusive interview with Carolina Journal, he said “The alliance doesn’t believe there should be a cap on any successful schools.”

But Goodall warns that the bill now under consideration has a provision that would make it nearly impossible to start new charter schools in areas that need them most. The provision writes into law a controversial policy adopted by the State Board of Education last December that would mandate the closing of any charter school which has fewer than 60 percent of its students scoring “at grade level” on state-administered standardized tests, and also fails to meet its state-assigned growth targets for two out of any three school years.

The provision has led some charter school supporters to urge the bill’s defeat. Others have offered only guarded support. Goodall says the alliance is neutral on the bill.

“The original charter law said that charters should target at-risk students, and this new policy makes that almost impossible,” said Goodall. Charter start-ups typically demand enormous commitments of time, money, and effort on the part of citizens who attempt them, and all this would go for naught if the school were not able to meet the standard in two of its first three years.

If the law mirrors the state board’s policy, it would make sense to found new charters only in areas where most students were already on grade level. Goodall says the policy “doesn’t make any sense.”

Supporters argue that regular, non-charter public schools are supposed to meet the same goals, and that it’s only fair to hold charter schools to the same standard. Charter advocates counter that while the standard may be the same, charters face tougher consequences should they fail.
When a charter school closes, staff members lose their jobs, and students are returned to their regular district schools, even if the district schools are worse than the charters that closed. District schools that fail continue to operate and typically are given extra help from the state, though in extreme cases teachers and administrators could be removed.

This was illustrated graphically in March when the board voted not to renew the charter of The Academy of Moore County. The academy had suffered through several years of declining test scores earlier this decade, but was clearly improving and had met its federally mandated “adequate yearly progress” goal for the previous school year. Barring a legal challenge, the vote effectively closes the school as of June 30, despite the recommendation of the Office of Charter Schools that its charter be renewed. (See “Officials Baffled by State Decision to Close Charter,” May CJ.)

While senators ponder the fate of that bill, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison has come up with another idea expanding the number of charter schools in the state. At the conclusion of the regular May meeting of the board, Harrison informed board members that he was working on a proposal to allow each school district the option of converting one of its lowest-performing schools into a charter school.

In an interview, Harrison expanded on the idea. “We’re trying to provide an alternative for some schools that haven’t done well,” he said. “One intent of the charter school legislation was to give schools the opportunity not to be restricted by state board policies and legislation.” His proposal, which is still being drafted, could allow these “district charters” greater flexibility in terms of staffing, programs, and operations.

Under Harrison’s plan, the newly converted charters would still fall under the control of their local school boards, unlike traditional charters which have their own independent boards. In the district charters, the selection of the principal, setting of the budget, and other major decisions would be made by the local school board, but these schools would be freed from some district rules, including hiring and firing of staff and compensation.

The standards for student achievement, however, would be the same as for other charter schools, and any district charter that failed to meet those standards would lose its charter and revert to being a regular district school. “With freedom comes responsibility,” Harrison said.

As with the bill to raise the cap, some charter school advocates are wary of this proposal, too. Charter school alliance board member Michelle Godard Terrell is not convinced that local boards can run charter schools effectively.

“National research shows that district authorizers tend to support lower academic standards than non-district authorizers,” she wrote in an e-mail. She wrote that unless the district made significant changes to the school and staff, she would be “concerned that this new proposal … would fail to lead to student achievement gains.”

Godard Terrell added: “Historically, the greatest opposition to growth of charters in North Carolina has come from school boards, some parent-teacher associations, and teacher associations — the very folks that would be involved with these new semi-charter schools.”

Jim Stegall is a contributor to Carolina Journal.