News: CJ Exclusives

Charter school supporters voice concerns about Cooper’s Leandro Commission 

The governor's Leandro commission at a Sept. 9, 2019 meeting. (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)
The governor's Leandro commission at a Sept. 9, 2019 meeting. (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)

Proponents of charter schools worry the Governor’s Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education will use the Leandro ruling as a roundabout way to restrict charter schools. The most recent commission meeting, Monday, Oct. 14, didn’t allay those concerns.

Charter schools are public schools, but their place in the Leandro discussion isn’t entirely clear. 

Nor is their place on the commission.

Gov. Roy Cooper created the Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education in 2018 to develop recommendations on how the state could comply with the landmark Leandro rulings. Since its inception, the 19-member commission has held numerous meetings to determine what steps the state could take to ensure all students have access to a sound, basic education. 

Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, says charter schools were never part of the Leandro discussion until appointees to the commission brought them up.

“This is nothing more than an effort to use the Leandro lawsuit to stand in the doorway of charter school expansion,” says Long.

Leandro dates back to 1994, when five rural school districts sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise enough tax revenue locally to provide their students an education on the same level with schools in wealthier districts. Soon after, the state Supreme Court held that every North Carolina child has a right to “a sound, basic education” under the state constitution. In 2004, the court ruled the state failed to live up to the earlier ruling.

But the growing number of charter schools across the state concerns the commission. In its draft recommendations, the commission claims the expansion of charter schools has placed a financial and planning burden on school districts. Recommendations include calling for the state to conduct a study on how best to fund charter schools while maintaining the opportunity for every student to have access to a sound, basic education. 

Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association for Public Charter Schools, said some members are outright opponents of charter schools. 

What’s more, a lack of charter school representation on the commission raises red flags. 

“It is good to study school funding to make sure students in our state have all of the resources that they need to succeed,” Long said. “However, pitting one against the other, in this case, only seeks to serve systems over families and students.”

Long said charter schools account for about 6% of the total N.C. public school population. He isn’t convinced charter schools are placing a large financial burden on public school districts. 

“Charter schools get about three quarters of the money that district schools get. They get no funding for facilities at all. That has to come out of their operating expenses,” Dillingham said. “For the North Carolina taxpayer, charter schools are a pretty good deal.”

As for the planning burden, Dillingham said, districts know at least a year in advance that a charter school is coming. 

“Bottom line is, the money follows the child,” Dillingham said. “If the district is not teaching the child, the district should not get the money for the child.” 

Helen “Sunny” Ladd, Susan B. King Professor Emeritus of Public Policy at Duke University, questioned whether teacher licensing requirements for charter schools conflict with Leandro. One of the court’s requirements calls for every classroom to have a “competent, certified, well-trained teacher who is teaching the standard course of study.” 

“We talk about having qualified teachers in every school, but charter schools don’t have to have 100% certified teachers,” Ladd said during a conference call meeting Monday, Oct. 14. 

Dillingham said the quality of a teacher doesn’t begin and end with certification. 

“I understand the value of certification, but I can also say from my many years of experience, having a certified teacher in the classroom doesn’t necessarily equal excellence in instruction,” Dillingham said. 

As a former high school educator and assistant principal, Dillingham said she has seen plenty of licensed teachers who shouldn’t have been teaching. She also has seen highly effective teachers who weren’t certified. 

Raleigh Charter High School has consistently been named as one of the top high schools in the country, but 30% of its teachers are unlicensed. In March 2019, the News & Observer found “no strong correlation between passing rates on state exams and the percentage of fully licensed teachers at charter schools.” 

Steven Walker, chief of staff and general counsel for Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, said he opposes the idea of increasing a requirement that 50% of charter school teachers be licensed.

“I would be interested to see if they have any data or studies that show that a higher percentage of licensure results in increased student performance, because I have not seen a study that demonstrates that,” Walker said. 

Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education dean, said he didn’t see any reason to compromise teacher preparation, even though many teachers in charter schools aren’t certified.

The commission is close to finalizing recommendations, and Monday tweaked a few based on earlier suggestions. It won’t finalize the recommendations until members consider the WestEd report. 

WestEd was selected as an independent consultant in the Leandro case and charged with producing recommendations to satisfy the rulings. Judge David Lee received the WestEd report over the summer, but hasn’t made the findings public. 

Recommendations range from calling for “adequate” funding to districts and teachers to urging the state to fully fund school districts’ operational costs. Other recommendations include expanding the state’s pre-K program, providing recurring funds for capital and infrastructure needs, and discontinuing the A-F school performance grades.