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Charter school's integrity at issue

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A Charlotte charter school’s plan to open in August could be derailed by accusations that the operators copied another school’s application. The dispute raises questions about North Carolina’s readiness to deal with a deluge of requests to create new, nontraditional public schools.

Millions of public dollars and the education of thousands of students are at stake. Charter schools are booming, especially in the Charlotte region, since state lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap in 2011.

Cameron Creek Charter School in east Charlotte is among 25 that got preliminary state approval to open this August. Last week the state’s Charter School Advisory Council recommended that the state Board of Education deny final approval, based on extensive similarities between its application and that of another Charlotte charter that was rejected last year.

Large portions of the 155-page Cameron Creek application, filed by Sylvia Cole in 2012, duplicate the 140-page application Stacey Rose filed in 2011 to open Charlotte Learning Academy, according to state officials and reports. For instance, the name of Charlotte Learning Academy appears eight times in the Cameron Creek application.

Cole, who was summoned to Raleigh to defend herself last week, denies the allegations. She argued that both applications are based on public documents.

But the council, made up of charter school operators and others with education expertise, voted unanimously to withdraw its support.

“It was pretty clear they couldn’t defend their position,” advisory council Chairman John Betterton said Monday.

The state Board of Education will vote on the matter at its March meeting. A Cameron Creek spokeswoman said Monday that if the charter is denied, Cole and her board will go to court.

“Preventing good schools from opening just isn’t people’s goal,” said Sid Reynolds of the Signature Agency, a public relations firm Cameron Creek has hired.

Opening the gate

In 1996, the N.C. legislature voted to allow 100 charter schools across the state. Those schools are run by independent nonprofit boards rather than local school districts. They have to meet state requirements for public schools, but they have more freedom than traditional public schools in hiring, firing and paying teachers and structuring their calendar and school day.

Once the initial 100 charters were granted, new schools could open only when existing schools closed. That meant the state dealt with only a handful of applicants each year.

That changed in 2011, when a Republican-dominated legislature lifted the limit. The five-person Office of Charter Schools must now handle a fast-growing stream of proposals for new schools.

Before issuing a charter, which allows operators to get state, federal and county education money, state officials want to ensure there’s a meaningful plan to educate children and a business plan to back it up. The state created the 15-member advisory council to help with screening.

The process hasn’t been a rubber stamp. Last time around, 63 applications were filed. Nine were incomplete, and the advisory panel broke into subcommittees to review the remaining 54. Thirty operators were called in for interviews, and 25 got preliminary approval.

Joel Medley, head of the charter school office, said applicants have been rejected for a number of reasons. Some show weak budgets, or don’t seem prepared to back up their mission.

The advisory group flagged two applications that were identical, even though they came from different operators in areas with different needs. They were written by the same consultant, and both were rejected, Betterton said.

Cut and pasted?

All applications are posted online. State officials and charter advocates urge prospective operators to review and learn from them.

Rose was reviewing the successful 2013 applications in hopes of trying again to open Charlotte Learning Center in 2014, according to an email she sent Medley on Jan. 29. When she got to Cameron Creek’s, it looked familiar, down to spelling errors in a chart and a nearly identical budget, she wrote.

Her fear: Would officials think her 2014 application was copied from Cameron Creek?

Medley reviewed both documents and concluded that they are “extremely similar,” including an erroneous abbreviation of No Child Left Behind as “NCLD” and a reference to “middle school education.” Cameron Creek is opening as an elementary school, while Charlotte Learning Center would include both levels.

Medley summoned Cole to the Feb. 11 advisory council meeting to explain.

What are the rules?

In academia, copying without attribution is plagiarism, a serious offense.

But Cameron Creek leaders say the rules for charter applications are far from clear. Eddie Goodall, a former state senator from Union County who heads the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, agrees.

It doesn’t make sense for applicants to start from scratch on crafting bylaws or student handbooks, Goodall says. While Goodall says borrowing should be done with permission and attribution, he says he’s wary of penalizing applicants for breaking rules that don’t exist.

“First we’ve got to determine what the rules are,” he said. “What is plagiarism, and what is expected to be created by the writer?”

Cole said the Cameron Creek application was written by several board members, including three who have since been replaced. “Our Board does not believe that anyone associated with Cameron Creek Charter School’s application intentionally copied blocks of content from any other specific charter school application,” she wrote in a Feb. 2 letter.

Reynolds, the PR spokeswoman, said Cameron Creek used iThenticate software, which is used to detect plagiarism, to analyze both applications. The main source for both, she said, turned out to be the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools web site, followed by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

More work ahead

As the state Board of Education prepares to settle the Cameron Creek question, Medley’s office and the advisory board are bracing for an unprecedented workload.

Based on letters of intent, as many as 156 applications to open charters in 2014-15 could land by the March 1 deadline.

Medley said this week he’s using “a couple thousand dollars” in his budget to hire consultants to pre-screen those applications and make notes for the council. Among the instructions they’ll be given: “Do you see another school’s name? If so, that’s a red flag.”

The Board of Education has allowed the council an extra two months to review the 2014 applications. And Betterton says his panel of volunteers is learning from experience: “I think we’re going to be a little more astute because we’ve been through it before.”

Some critics are skeptical.

The failure to detect a copied application “should be very alarming to education policymakers and legislators,” said Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, an arm of the anti-poverty N.C. Justice Center. His group published a report on the Cameron Creek dispute last week.

“I think the first thing we should do is slow down,” Fitzsimon said. The state needs to do a thorough review, not only of the local applicants but the for-profit management companies that some hire to run their schools, he said.

Helms: 704-358-5033
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