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N.C. charter school bill is very troubling

There are so many troubling things about Senate Bill 337, an N.C. charter school bill unveiled last week, that it’s hard to know where to start. But this item stands out like a sore thumb: The bill would remove the requirement that at least half of a charter school’s teaching staff be certified, or be college educated.

OK. You thought all the teaching staff at an N.C. public school had to be certified, right? That’s only true of traditional public schools. Current law allows varying levels of certification at a charter school: At least 75 percent of teachers must be certified in kindergarten-5th grade; at least 50 percent in grades 6-12.

Additionally, current law requires that all charter school teachers in grades 6-12 who teach the core subjects of mathematics, science, social studies and language arts “shall be college graduates.”

Senate Bill 337 removes all those requirements.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

It is. Brunswick County Schools Superintendent Ed Pruden asked at a last week’s Senate Education Committee meeting the question begging to be asked.

“Students in charter schools also deserve highly qualified teachers,” he said. “Why does this bill weaken requirements for teacher licensure in charter schools?”

Bill sponsor, Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, reportedly answered with this anecdote: “I have a high school in my district and a pharmacist wanted to teach chemistry there. But he couldn’t because he wasn’t ‘highly qualified.’ ” Sigh. Tillman should have checked out the state’s lateral entry program and its alternative licensure process instead.

The bill also does this astounding thing: It makes it optional for charter schools to do criminal background checks on their employees. This is especially mindboggling given all the concern lawmakers expressed last week for the safety of school children in unveiling a comprehensive bill to boost efforts to protect students.

But Tillman’s response to concerns about endangering students was blasé. He said many charters do background checks, anyway, so they need not be legally required to do so. Say, what?

Our overriding concern about this bill is that it removes a lot of charter school accountability. The bill takes authority away from the State Board of Education and creates a separate governing board for charters that allows it to adopt its own rules and regulation – something legal scholars are already denouncing as unconstitutional. Board members would be selected by the governor and legislative leaders - currently all Republicans – and there is no bar to those with financial or other interests in for-profit charters from serving.

When asked about that potential conflict of interest, Tillman once again pooh-poohed concern, saying essentially, you can trust us.

Yeah. Right.

The bill relegates the state’s independently elected school superintendent to the sidelines, giving the superintendent (currently Democrat June Atkinson) a non-voting board role. The state education board could veto any charter action with a three-fourths majority. That’s a high threshhold, and with more and more positions being filled by Republicans, getting that majority seems unlikely.

We think charter schools are a valuable asset to the N.C. public school system. Some are excellent and providing models of innovation for traditional public schools. But these changes are an open invitation for charter schools with lax hiring standards and little, if any, commitment to academic excellence to set up shop in North Carolina.

Students in this state deserve better. This bill needs to be retooled or ditched.

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