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If public pays, public gets access

Complexities pervade the debate around the burgeoning charter school movement, but one aspect is undeniably simple: If you receive $304.7 million in state taxpayer dollars, then you must be open with the public on how you’re spending that money.

That may seem self-evident, but there’s an effort afoot in Raleigh to exempt charter schools from the state’s public records and open meetings laws. We know of no other recipient of so much state funding that is granted secrecy from the very public that pays the bills.

The Senate Education Committee is considering legislation (S 793) that would change the appeals process for charter school applicants who are denied a charter. One provision in the bill makes it explicit that charter schools are subject to the state’s open meetings and public records laws.

But as the Observer’s Ann Doss Helms reported, a proposal was floated last week to remove that provision. This new proposal could eventually make charter schools exempt from public records laws or would leave the question murky, as it has been in recent months. Either, of course, is unacceptable.

The idea that charter schools, which are public schools supported with public money, should not be accountable to the public is so preposterous that it’s tempting to think the bill will go nowhere – like the bill that proposed a state religion, or the one that sought to give legislators a giant raise. This one, though, might have the support of Senate Education Committee Chairman Jerry Tillman, an influential Republican who is the chamber’s majority whip. It’s not clear what Tillman thinks of the idea; he did not return calls seeking comment from the Observer editorial board or from Helms. The proposal could come up for a vote in his committee this week.

North Carolina’s 125-plus charter schools are publicly funded schools run by nonprofit boards. Their contracts require them to abide by public records laws. But when the Observer requested the same salary information from area charter schools that all public schools make available, a state spokeswoman said that information is not public. Top education officials later said she was wrong and that the information is public.

This back and forth is why it’s important S 793 retain language explicitly including charters in open government laws. Some charter schools are providing an exemplary education; others have had to shut down because of mismanagement. Regardless of the schools’ quality, they receive millions in local, state and federal money. How they spend it cannot be kept a secret.

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