House lawmakers pushed along a raft of proposals this week that could diminish accountability and transparency for North Carolina’s public charter school sector and restrict access to some charters in a bid to provide perks to the business community.

Four House bills, which are moving rapidly through the legislative process this week so that they survive “crossover”—the date by which a bill must pass one chamber in order to have any hope for becoming law before the session’s end—would allow charter schools to expand enrollments up to 30 percent without any state oversight, potentially make closing a charter school more difficult, allow charters to earmark 50 percent of student enrollment for children of business partners, and allow certain towns to operate their own charter schools.

“This really pushes us down the road to privatization that we resisted on charter schools,” said Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Durham, of the bill that could set up public charter schools to more closely resemble private schools tailored to meet the needs of corporate interests.

Company employees’ children could get preferred admission to charters

If you run a business or a nonprofit that supports a charter school, either by giving the school land or a facility or investing in the school’s technology, for example, then the children of your company’s employees would get preferential treatment to enroll in that charter school with HB 800, which the House passed Tuesday evening.

If the bill becomes law, a charter school that partners with a business entity would be able to devote 50 percent of its enrollment to the children of that partner’s employees—and that’s on top of the 15 percent of enrollments that are earmarked by law for the children of a charter school’s board of directors and teachers.

Priority enrollment for a charter school’s business partners is a perk that the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Bradford (R-Mecklenburg) said he’d like to see companies take advantage of as an incentive to do business in North Carolina—especially in rural areas.

“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.

But Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Durham) saw the legislation differently, and sought to strike the section that would allow charters to give preferential treatment to companies’ employees.

“When we established charter schools in North Carolina, we set up a whole set of guidelines to restrict these schools so that they would not become de facto segregated private schools,” said Meyer.

“This provision really creates a new type of school that we haven’t had in North Carolina before. It creates a company school. A school where a company establishes a charter and blocks off 50 percent of its seats for children of those people who work there. It’s akin to private schools that already exist in the state that are on the campus of a company or are affiliated with the company,” said Meyer.

“To me this is just a step too far in moving away from the public aspect of public charter schools. This is setting up something that feels proprietary in nature,” Meyer said. “That’s not a freely available public school.”

Reached for comment by telephone, chair of the Charter Schools Advisory Board, Alex Quigley, also expressed concerns about the legislation, speaking on behalf of himself and not the charter oversight board.

“I’m 100 percent supportive of the business community supporting free, public education by giving time and resources to charter schools,” said Quigley.

“But this bill appears to enable a charter school to prioritize enrollment for students in a manner that is not consistent with the legislative purpose of charter schools. We need to be working towards making free public charter schools more readily available to all students, regardless of their zip code, income, access to reliable personal transportation, or who employs their parents.”

Preferred charter school enrollment for children of company employees is not a new concept.

The idea appears to have taken root in Florida nearly two decades ago with legislation that allowed charter schools to be formed in the workplace.

Charters could expand enrollments by 30 percent annually without state oversight

The original bill’s sponsors (HB779) wanted charter schools to be able to expand their enrollments by as much as 40 percent annually without having to gain approval from the state — but a substitute bill knocked that percentage down to thirty during Monday’s committee hearing.

Sponsors of the bill promoted the idea to allow charters to expand enrollments up to 30 percent without undergoing a vetting process in a bid to reduce significant waiting lists for some charter schools and offer families more school choice.

But according to the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law project, lowering standards for expansion could allow charters to grow even if they are identified as academically low-performing, fail to meet their current enrollment targets, or fail to meet minimum standards of fiscal management.

“Allowing schools that are low-performing and/or financially mismanaged to grow this quickly would dilute the quality of charter schools and increase the number of students being served by low-performing schools and schools that are at increased risk of closure due to financial problems,” said Matt Ellinwood, director of the Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.*

The state charter oversight board’s chair, Quigley, said he doesn’t see the need for the legislative change.

“The system we have seems to be working as a logical check and balance,” said Quigley, who explained that charter schools can already increase their enrollments annually up to 20 percent without state approval — and anything beyond that triggers a review to ensure that the school is adequately equipped to handle larger increases.

“The greater the expansion threshold that’s allowed for charter schools,” Quigley also said, “the more difficult it gets for DPI to adequately plan the allotment distributions, which can be frustrating for both DPI and school districts.”

State Board of Education chair Bill Cobey told NC Policy Watch he believes it’s not a good idea to allow charter schools to expand their enrollments beyond 20 percent without state approval.

“I think the idea of giving them 20 percent was probably a good idea,” said Cobey. “It certainly cut down on our workload. But anybody that wants to go over 20 percent, they can make their case to the Charter School Advisory Board. If they think that it’s a good idea, they’ll recommend it to us.”

The full House is set to vote on the measure today.

Granting towns the power to operate charter schools

Rep. William Brawley’s (R-Mecklenburg) HB 514 would offer the towns of Mint Hill and Matthews—suburbs of Charlotte, a city that is nearing a saturation point when it comes to the number of charter schools operating there—the opportunity to apply for and hold a charter on their own. Current law requires that charter schools be operated by private, tax-exempt nonprofit corporations; the proposal would give the town’s governing bodies the power to do that instead.

Charter schools located in Mint Hill and Matthews would be able to give priority enrollment status to its residents to attend those charters. The bill would also allow those towns to use property tax revenue to support those charter schools.

Rep. Bobbie Richardson (D-Franklin, Nash) said the bill gets too far away from the original charter school legislation, which currently allows greater access to students from across the state to attend charter schools of their choice. Rep. Richardson also expressed concern that the proposal would limit diversity in these charter schools, since priority enrollment would be given to those domiciled in those towns.

The NC Justice Center’s Kris Nordstrom notes that roughly three quarters of residents of Mint Hill and Matthews are white, setting up a scenario that will will facilitate the further segregation of North Carolina’s schools.

Charter oversight board chair Quigley says the bill seems unnecessary and redundant.

“While I understand there are communities that really want a charter, we have an existing system in place that works,” said Quigley. “Any town or community can put together a Board of Directors and 501c3 to submit an application. My experience on the Charter Schools Advisory Board is that we love seeing the support of local elected officials serving on charter boards or writing letters of support.”

The House education committee supported the measure and it is awaiting full House approval.

Making it harder to close low performing charter schools?

Sponsors of HB 806 want to ensure families have sufficient notice when a failing charter school their student attends is on the brink of closure—which, on its face, makes a lot of sense. A number of charter schools have suddenly closed in recent years, leaving families scrambling often at the last minute to find alternatives for their children’s education.

But the bill includes provisions that may have some unintended consequences—notably a series of actions that the State Board of Education and/or the closing charter school must take over a period of potentially months to inform families what is happening and what their options are going forward.

“I am concerned that this would potentially slow the process of closure or make it more difficult for the CSAB and SBE to move forward when needed,” said CSAB chair Quigley.

“Some detailed parts of the bill suggest that in the actual implementation of this policy, we would have to jump through more hoops in the closure process. Charter schools that don’t meet the mark need to be closed. In my experience this bill…creates more bureaucracy in a process that already gets very drawn out,” Quigley said.

The full House passed the measure and it now moves on to the Senate.

“Overall, these bills don’t strengthen the charter school sector.”

Charter Schools Advisory Board chair Quigley said that in his view, the bills seeking to change charter school law this week are largely in search of problems that don’t exist—and these legislative efforts won’t strengthen the charter school sector writ large.

“We have some good momentum right now,” said Quigley, speaking of the continued work of the Charter School Advisory Board to improve processes and oversight for the booming charter school movement. “We need to continue to focus on doing those things.”

Ultimately, said Quigley, the focus of the oversight board as well as any legislation to change charter school law should be this: “We need to be working toward making charter schools successful for all.”

Other public school advocates have gone further, saying that the collection of bills will only exacerbate the resegregation of public schools in North Carolina and kick public charter schools further down a path toward privatization.

With HB 800 in particular, Rep. Graig Meyer said, “This is the most we’ve ever taken in a step toward true privatization of charter schools in North Carolina.”

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*The Fletcher Foundation provides financial support to the North Carolina Justice Center

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