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GOP seeks new way to govern charter schools

RALEIGH Frustrated by current restrictions, Republican lawmakers are crafting an entirely new system to manage charter schools, establishing a separate governing board filled with advocates and eliminating requirements for licensed teachers.

The measure takes authority from the State Board of Education to approve future charters and monitor existing ones – a move that critics say would spawn a shadow public school system.

The sweeping changes left a pile of questions Wednesday as the legislation surfaced for the first time in the Senate Education Committee and House lawmakers introduced a companion bill.

Republican state Sen. Jerry Tillman, the sponsor and committee co-chairman, gave a gruff assessment of the state board’s view on charters since lawmakers eliminated a cap on the number of schools in 2011. He said charter schools are too restrained to be successful.

“There has been friction, and there has been a feeling that ‘we’re accepting you begrudgingly at best,’ ” said Tillman, a retired public school administrator who lives in Archdale. “It has not worked how I would like it to work, and we need a new cast of players.”

A charter school is a publicly funded operation with more flexibility than traditional public schools have. Some are run by private management companies. The state board approved 24 new charters earlier this month, with 23 expected to open in the fall. About 50,000 students now attend 107 charters in the state.

The legislation split education advocates – even those in the charter school community – who spoke at the hearing.

Carl Forsyth, director of Voyager Academy, a Durham charter school, said Senate bill 337 would create a negative education climate.

“The current structure of oversight of charter schools and the current approval process of charter schools is sufficient,” he said. “Our schools will not improve if we pit public school educators against one another in a battle for students and scare resources.”

Doug Haynes, headmaster at Rocky Mount Preparatory School, quickly countered, telling lawmakers that the existing education bureaucracy stifles his charter.

“We believe that this bill, particularly the governance board, will restore the original intent of charter schools, which was to provide the freedom to innovate within public education in exchange for accountability,” he said.

Tillman delayed the vote on the bill until next week to allow time for amendments. But he said in an interview that he expects it to pass the Senate soon.

Under the legislation, the new 11-member board responsible for adopting rules would include nine members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders that demonstrate “a commitment to charter schools.”

The state’s independently elected school superintendent, currently a Democrat, would serve only in a nonvoting role. The state education board could veto any charter board action with a three-fourths majority.

Senators and education advocates raised pointed questions about the rules governing school employees, particularly the part that deletes a current law requiring at least 50 percent of charter instructors to hold teaching certificates.

Leigh Bordley, a Durham parent, told lawmakers that the move runs counter to other legislation filed this session to strengthen teacher quality standards. “Children in those schools deserve highly trained teachers, just as we have in traditional public schools,” said Bordley, who is also a Durham school board member.

Tillman cited an example of a pharmacist who wasn’t able to teach chemistry because he wasn’t a licensed teacher, saying the pharmacist had more experience than most teachers. “Any time you’ve got a piece of bologna that has two sides to it, I don’t care how thin you slice it, you’ve got to look beyond what might appear on the paper,” he said.

Another provision allows each charter to develop its own policy about whether school employees are required to submit a background check. Tillman said universal background checks are not required for traditional public schools, though most do it.

Sen. Austin Allran, a Hickory Republican, said not enforcing background checks “seems ironic and sort of counterintuitive – you are talking about children.”

Frank: 919-829-4698
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