Last November the people of North Carolina shouted “yes” to the conservative message of limited government, fiscal responsibility, economic freedom and real education reform. One of the components of that victory was a proposal embraced by nearly all the newly-elected law makers: the removal of the state-imposed 100 school cap on charter schools. During the first week of the new session, Sen. Richard Stevens (R-Wake) introduced legislation (SB-8) to lift the cap, create an independent commission to approve and administer charter schools and allow local governments the freedom to provide funds to charter schools if they so choose.
Nine weeks and five bill versions later, the momentum for offering a viable charter school option is being squandered. In the quest to create a definitive, comprehensive bill and provide veto-proof majorities, SB-8 has devolved into unacceptable legislation. Worse yet, the legislation undermines the principles that have helped to define and advance charter schools.
Limits Educational Opportunity. Current SB-8 legislation limits the number of new charter schools per year to no more than 50. The original SB-8 removed the cap and placed no limit on the number of new charter schools. Under the new plan, local school boards can open “restart” or “charter lite” schools under Race to the Top. Because local school boards retain control over “restart”schools, such provisions represent a fundamental contradiction of the very nature of charters. If that isn’t bad enough, the new “restarts” count against the limit of 50 new schools annually. With over 100 local systems, if even half ask for one school the entire year’s worth of charters is used up.
Do we need a cap on charters? Willing and able charter applicants along with market and labor conditions already work to limit the number of new charters. Why should state government further limit educational opportunity to a select few students?
Creates an Unfavorable Application Process. Early versions of SB-8 reference the newly-created Public Charter Schools Commission (PCSC) to approve charter school applications and administer charter school programs. The thirteen member PCSC was intended to operate semi-independently of the State Board of Education (SBE). SBE Could overturn any PCSC decision with a three-quarters vote. The new legislation weakens PCSC’s authority and independence. Instead of having final authority over all charter applications and actions, SB-8 relegates PCSC to a purely advisory status. The legislation provides that PCSC make recommendations to SBE on all aspects of charter school operation. Specifically, PCSC is to “make recommendations to the State Board regarding any actions involving a charter school, including renewals of charters, nonrenewals of charters, and revocation of charters.”
Additional Standards for Charter School Applicants: SB-8 requires new charter schools to include in the application how charter school students will meet the standard of post-secondary readiness for high schools. If such standards are so important, why do they only apply to charter school students?
Requires Provision of Food and Transportation Services. Under the current law, charter schools can choose to provide food and transportation services to students, and parents know when they apply for admission whether it is provided. Transportation and food services can require significant additional expenditures and this will come at the expense of educational services. As more charter schools compete for students you will see schools use these two services as additional benefits to draw students.
The current version of SB-8 requires all schools to provide lunch services to students and transportations services to students whose family incomes are below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, 185 percent of the Federal poverty level is $41,348. Outside many of the major metropolitan areas of North Carolina, there are many families whose incomes fall within this range. As such, it will require charter schools to bus high percentages of students with no additional funds to purchase buses or to build cafeterias. Such provisions erode institutional autonomy and flexibility, once a defining quality of charter schools.
Ironically traditional public schools actually are not “required” to do either of these for students regardless of income. From the statutes “…boards of education shall provide to the extent practicable school food services in the schools under their jurisdiction.” For transportation, most traditional public schools provide NO transportation to those within 1.5 miles, or what is usually considered walking distance, of the school. The charter requirement exceeds the requirement placed on traditional public schools in both of these areas.
Unfairly Raises the Bar For Termination and Renewal. Under existing law, charter schools that fail to meet the goals of the charter are not renewed. SB-8 declares that schools with no growth in student performance and with annual performance composites below 60 percent in a three year period will be closed. These provisions will have a chilling effect on the number of charter schools and the populations they serve. Charter schools with large disadvantaged populations — many of whom enter schools several years behind grade level — will be forced to serve less needy students. Again, if such requirements are necessary for ensuring school quality, why are lawmakers not concerned about the thousands of traditional public school students enrolled in public schools that remain open, despite failing to meet the same requirements?
SB-8, as currently written, weakens charter school autonomy and places unnecessary restrictions on charter school operations and gives public education bureaucrats more control over how charter schools are created and administered. It also contains language that in some places is contradictory and confusing.
All is not lost. The original Senate Bill 8 that passed the senate, while not perfect, is far superior to the current version. The other possibility is to just do what was promised and remove the current cap and allow schools that are in existence and excelling to grow without asking permission. The other important issues can be addressed separately.
Governor Perdue and members of both parties have strongly expressed their support for lifting the cap. Considering the over 20,000 students on charter school waiting lists, it is time to do something.
This article was updated on 4/8/2011 to accurately reflect how recently approved changes to SB 8 will impact the relationship between PCSC and SBE.