A bill moving through the North Carolina legislature that would allow corporations to essentially buy spots at public charter schools for their employees’ children has a lot of folks upset—including some charter school leaders.
“It’s just not the right thing for kids,” said Stephen Gay, the superintendent at East Wake Preparatory Academy, a public charter school in Zebulon, about HB 800. “These are kids’ lives, and we need to be doing what’s right for them.”
Drawing an analogy to old mill towns, Gay is worried that if corporations that donate land or a building or make other investments in a public charter school are then repaid with access to a substantial supply of that charter school’s coveted seats, it could be the for-profit company that drives what happens at the school—not the school’s leaders or the nonprofit board tasked with overseeing them.
“Think about the turn of the century,” said Gay. “We used to have mill towns, and the mill owned everything—the store, the school, the church…the mill owned your life. And so with this bill, what you are doing is you are going to sell part of your soul to a business.”
Rep. John Bradford (R-Mecklenburg), CEO of Park Avenue Properties, a property management company based in Charlotte, is the primary sponsor of HB 800, which the full House passed in April. The bill is currently awaiting consideration in the Senate.
Here’s how HB 800 would work:
Working with a minimum value of $50,000, a company can either donate land, a school building, or make major renovations to a charter school. What would the company get In return? Fifty percent of the charter school’s seats would be set aside for the children of the company’s employees.
This arrangement would work if the company makes investments in technology, too—as long as the value of the tech investment amounts to at least 50 percent of the state’s per pupil allocation for charter schools for that 6 year multiplied by the charter school’s average daily membership.
Affiliates of the company (referred to as the “charter partner” in the legislation) would also get seats on the nonprofit board that oversees the charter school, as long as they don’t constitute a majority of the board. And current law allows for fifteen percent of enrollment at a charter school to be set aside for the children of board members or charter school employees, setting up a scenario whereby only 35 percent of the charter school’s seats could be accessible to the general public.
Rep. Bradford says the legislation is intended as an economic development tool.
“It provides an opportunity for businesses to recruit employees by providing an educational incentive for the employee’s children—which we all know is a top factor in recruiting employees,” said Rep. Bradford.
It’s also a way for charter schools to tap into capital resources—typically a key obstacle in a charter school’s efforts to get up and running because while they are public schools, the state does not provide them capital financing.
“This bill is about enabling the possible development of charter schools by reducing or eliminating/reducing the need for upfront capital which is a real issue for charter programs,” said Rep. Bradford.
During the advent of public charter schools (in the late 1990s in North Carolina), they were conceived to be laboratories of innovation that would experiment with unique ways of educating students—but the intent, at least, was not to uniquely enable charter schools to restrict access to certain student populations.
“This bill might satisfy the very general urge to get a charter school to open in a certain area,” said Eric Grunden, founder and Chief School Officer of Research Triangle High School in Durham. “But when a company tags a portion of the student population for its own, that doesn’t serve the larger interest of advancing quality education in the state.”
Some public charter schools already receive criticism for restricting access to certain student populations. Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are not obligated by law to offer lunch or transportation to students, which can set up significant barriers for low-income families to overcome. According to a recent study by Duke University, charter schools are “increasingly serving the interests of relatively able white students in racially imbalanced schools.”
HB 800 doesn’t help schools address that development—and Grunden says he doesn’t want to see people buying their way into charter schools.
“One of the bones I have with school districts is that essentially people with money can choose their schools by buying their houses in certain areas,” said Grunden. “We’ve tried to fight that sort of thing with redistricting and busing…but if you have that scenario develop between a land developer and a school, you can easily create a really segregated school.”
East Wake Prep’s Stephen Gay is also concerned with the provision that gives seats on the charter school’s nonprofit board to the company donating to the school.
“That’s a conflict of interest, and it stinks,” said Gay. “It could allow the company to start changing curricula or other aspects of the school’s mission.”
It’s not clear if there’s a company out there pushing to have this proposal become law.
When asked via email if either a company or an education management organization lobbied to have a bill introduced at the legislature that would give companies priority access to charter schools in exchange for donations, Rep. Bradford simply replied “No.”
Research Triangle High School’s Eric Grunden says he is concerned that HB 800 along with a package of other bills introduced at the legislature last month aren’t helping the charter school sector writ large.
“They are making charter schools look more and more like toys—a special interest issue as opposed to a real force in educating children,” said Grunden, pointing to other bills introduced last month that would allow charter schools to expand up to a higher percentage without state review and allow towns to operate their own charter schools, possibly exacerbating school segregation.
Grunden said he had hoped for this year that legislation would have focused more on the issue of charter school funding—many advocates say that charter schools don’t receive their fair share of state per pupil funds—and ways to ensure charter schools are high quality and accountable to the public.
“We can’t be making excuses for unsuccessful schools that have become examples of financial mismanagement and bad planning,” said Grunden. “In some cases, schools that are bad ideas are being allowed to open. Instead, we need something to make the charter school product better and get the bad product out.”
East Wake Prep’s Stephen Gay agrees.
“What the bills are doing is amplifying all of the negative stereotypes about charter schools,” said Gay. “Does it make sense to invest 30 percent more to expand a business when it’s struggling or just simply an unknown? How does that make sense?”
“We need to slow down and think about what’s the best thing for kids,” said Gay. “We should be held accountable because it is taxpayer money, after all.”