Tensions rise over NC charter school rejections

A state screening board’s recent decision to reject most charter school applications has sparked tension over the role private management companies should play in public education.

The N.C. Charter School Advisory Board approved only 11 of the 71 applications filed to open schools in 2015. That’s fewer than half the number approved for 2014, with a similar number of applications.

The board rejected 15 of the 17 applications from for-profit management companies. Board member Alan Hawkes of Greensboro, appointed by Senate leader Phil Berger, sent an email Monday chastising other members for being “judgmental and punitive” in rejecting plans that would have expanded charter enrollment.

“The plan was to have operators come into the state like they did in Louisiana and other states and quickly affect the public school choice landscape for the better and in quantity,” said Hawkes, a founding board member of two Guilford County charter schools run by the for-profit National Heritage Academies.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, most New Orleans public schools were replaced by charter schools, which currently serve about 90 percent of the city’s students. Hawkes said Friday that he doesn’t expect numbers like that in North Carolina but wants to see charter enrollment grow quickly and significantly.

Cheryl Turner, a Charlotte charter school director who also serves on the board, says Hawkes’ view will erode support for North Carolina’s charter school movement.

“Who in the world is going to agree to kill the public school system by bringing in private companies?” said Turner, director of Sugar Creek Charter School. “North Carolinians aren’t big on bringing in outside anything.”

The exchange highlights tensions among the state’s charter school proponents as North Carolina moves from a long-capped system to one that’s open to unlimited growth. After a Republican-dominated legislature lifted the 100-school limit in 2011, the state opened 23 new charter schools this year and approved 27 more for 2014-15.

Turner, who supports restrained growth and local control, says the nine-member board’s decision to reject most of the 2015-16 applications demonstrates a renewed focus on quality and a desire to avoid startup failures like that of Charlotte’s StudentFirst Academy. That charter opened in August and closed in April amid reports of financial irregularities and academic shortcomings.

Hawkes says “mom and pop operations” like Sugar Creek can’t force change fast enough. He argues that national chains are needed to make school districts “feel threatened and up their game,” leading to better schools for all students.

Hawkes said he sent Monday’s email shortly after speaking with state Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee. That day, Tillman introduced legislation to create an appeals process for applicants rejected by the advisory board. The N.C. Board of Education has final say on charters, which authorize private boards to get government money.

Neither Tillman nor Berger responded directly to questions about whether Hawkes’ email reflects their views, but Berger’s office sent a statement from Tillman raising concerns about inconsistent screening.

“Clearly, a number of the recent applicants have a great deal of experience and are already managing other charter schools across North Carolina – but the larger issue is we need to make sure everyone is being judged on the same criteria,” the Tillman statement said.

Growth vs. control

A Republican-dominated legislature created the current advisory board, made up of charter school administrators and board members, to be more charter-friendly than the previous screening panel.

But the old panel approved 27 of 70 applications for 2014-15 openings, while the new one cleared 11 of 71. Charter Schools USA, a Florida-based management company that opened Langtree and Cabarrus Academy charter schools in the Charlotte region this year, applied to launch nine more schools in 2015-16. None cleared the advisory board.

Hawkes says that shows that the majority of his colleagues were demanding “immaculate conceptions,” setting standards that their own schools couldn’t have met when they were starting.

The shadow of StudentFirst Academy hung over this year’s selection. The old panel approved the application to open a K-8 school for more than 400 students despite identifying significant weaknesses in the application.

The application included letters of praise for the private school from such sources as Pat McCrory, a Republican who was mayor of Charlotte at the time, and Patrick Cannon, a Democrat who was mayor pro tem. No management firm was involved.

In February, the Observer ran a front-page article detailing alleged problems, including weak academics, undocumented spending and inflation of administrative pay. Shortly after the Observer asked McCrory, now North Carolina’s governor, for comment about StudentFirst, he spoke at a school choice rally in Charlotte.

At that event, McCrory lauded charter schools but vowed to crack down on low-quality ones: “If any are falling behind and not meeting the standards, we will take action, because I don’t want that to be a reflection of the choice movement.”

As the Charter School Advisory Board began reviewing 2015-16 applications, tensions arose. Members appointed by McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis were often at odds with those appointed by Berger and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, said Turner, a Tillis appointee.

Hawkes says McCrory’s statement helped set the tone that led to excessive rejections.

Millions at stake

The growth of charter schools is shifting hundreds of millions of dollars in state, federal and county money from school districts. Based on its average per-pupil spending for public education, the state gives charter schools their share and requires county governments to do the same.

This year, the state is spending $304.7 million on charter schools, while Mecklenburg is contributing $23 million. The expected increase in charter enrollment for 2014-15 could add about $7 million to the amount Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools must pass along in county money.

Charter advocates say those schools are a bargain because they don’t get public money for busing or buildings. Charter schools must raise private money or stretch their operating budgets further to cover those expenses.

Management chains bring support in recruiting staff, providing academic guidance and building or renovating facilities. They may recruit a local board to file for charters, and the companies charge management fees.

The Charter Schools USA applications say 15 percent is customary, though fees are often reduced in the early years. Applications for the nine new schools, which include five in the Charlotte region, include a total of almost $12 million in management contract fees by the fifth year.

Second chances?

The Charter School Advisory Board is discussing changes to its selection process, including new guidelines on reviewing applications that involve management chains.

Meanwhile, Tillman’s bill would require the advisory board to give written reasons for rejecting applications, and provide avenues for applicants to appeal to the advisory board and the Board of Education. That bill has been referred to the Senate Education Committee. Concord Republican Sen. Fletcher Hartsell introduced a similar bill last week.

Further changes may be in store for the advisory board. Turner says she’ll resign in June, concerned that the board is no longer focused on quality.

“I’m done,” she said Thursday. “I’m tired.”

Hawkes’ email said he, too, is contemplating resignation “for being an ineffective change agent.” But when asked Friday about that plan, he hesitated.

“I’m thinking about it. I don’t know how seriously,” he said. “I’m needed on that board.”

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