BURLINGTON — Lawmakers and education scholars Monday night debated whether the state should sharpen its focus when overseeing tax-funded charter and private schools.

When it comes to holding charters schools accountable, one legislator, Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, said education policy experts in other parts of the country call North Carolina the Wild, Wild West.

That’s just fine with Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

“You talk to any principal or superintendent in the state and they will tell you they want charter-like flexibility. They want to be like charter schools and have the flexibility our charter schools have,” Stoops said. “If that is the Wild, Wild West, then every principal and superintendent in the state wants to visit.”

Meyer and Stoops were part of the panel for the second round of the Institute of Political Leadership’s Hometown Debates. Other panelists were Rep. Jeff Elmore, R-Wilkes, and Matt Ellinwood, the N.C. Justice Center’s director of education and law project. Stoops and Ellinwood also took part in the first debate Oct. 10 in Rocky Mount, along with two other state lawmakers. Loretta Boniti of Spectrum News moderated Monday’s hour-long debate in the Paramount Theater.

The final Hometown Debate is 7 p.m. Oct. 24 in the Old Post Office Playhouse in Newton. Panelists will focus on performance pay for teachers.

Regarding school choice, North Carolina has two available voucher programs — the Opportunity Scholarship and the Special Education Scholarship Grants for Children with Disabilities. Parents will also have an option to use the Personal Education Savings Account program for the 2018-19 school year.

When the state provides taxpayer dollars to any program it should be in charge of accountability, Meyer said.

“We don’t have any way of assessing student performance in voucher-funded schools right now. We can’t even do an apples-to-apples comparison on the very limited basis of the state testing that we use,” Meyer said. “So we don’t know whether that’s a good investment for our kids or for our public.”

Ellinwood echoed Meyer’s call for clearer minimal standards for charter schools.

“Right now we have a kind of ostrich in the sand method of accountability for the voucher program,” Ellinwood explained.

Elmore said the testing apparatus is the same for public and charter schools, but private schools are required only to administer national standardized tests.

“So in a way really what privates are allowed to do, it gives us a better nationwide comparison as a policymaker looking at the bigger numbers,” Elmore said.

Parents — not the state —  keep schools accountable, said Stoops, who countered Meyer’s suggestion for more state oversight of charters.

“It is important on whether the parents know how that student is doing. They are the primary vehicle for accountability in any choice system.”

Publicly available test scores are irrelevant, Stoops said, as long as parents have student performance scores, which allows them to determine whether their child is receiving a sound education.

“We shouldn’t just narrow it down to test scores,” Stoops argued. “Parents pursue options for lots of different reasons. Academics being one, but if the child is being bullied then they would want to move schools or they are in an unsafe environment in their school.”

Meyer later agreed that test scores aren’t the only measure of a school’s performance. Student and teacher absenteeism, school climate, and retention rates are factors to consider, as well.

Ellinwood said charter schools in North Carolina provide a false choice, as the schools aren’t required to accommodate students in lower-income or rural areas.

“If we are trying to create an option for students who are in struggling schools, if you don’t provide that transportation and you don’t provide free or reduced lunch then a lot of students don’t actually have that choice,” Ellinwood said. “It is really an illusory choice.”

Stoops talked about how charter management organizations bring outside capital to rural areas, which in turn creates more options for parents.

“I think it is beneficial to the students that don’t typically have a lot of options, and I think it is incredibly important to have the virtual options, virtual charter schools that would allow them to have an online educational experience,” Stoops said. “Those are critical for students who would otherwise not have those options.”

Elmore pointed to a network of homeschooling and tutoring options in rural areas as evidence of school choice in rural communities. Meyer argued charter schools aren’t the solution to every education problem, including issues surrounding rural education.

“We don’t fund our rural schools well enough,” Meyer said. “Our rural school districts are the poorest districts in the state, and because charter schools are funded based on the same appropriation formula as our traditional public schools are funded you don’t have enough money to open a charter school.”

It’s easier for charter school operators to get funding in urban districts, he said.

Panelists finished the debate by discussing flexibility for traditional public schools.

Ellinwood said public schools want more leeway with the academic calendar and in employing school counselors. Elmore suggested more flexibility with curriculum.

Meyer said public schools shouldn’t employ charter school flexibility on hiring teachers.

“Charter schools only have to have 50 percent of their teachers be fully certified teachers,” Meyer said. “That is concerning. I think we need qualified teachers for our kids.”

Stoops said certification requirements for teachers is absurd, and staffing flexibility is essential. He pointed to a shortfall of science, math, and special needs educators as a reason for flexible hiring.

“Loretta, not being a certified teacher, would not be able to teach television and film in a public school because she doesn’t have certification,” Stoops said of the debate moderator. “Why are we excluding people who are qualified to teach in a public school just because they don’t have a piece of paper that says they supposedly know how to teach?”