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Senate bill would change oversight of NC charter schools

Students at Charlotte’s Invest Collegiate charter school when it opened in 2013.
Students at Charlotte’s Invest Collegiate charter school when it opened in 2013. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

North Carolina’s charter schools would no longer report to the state’s Department of Public Instruction under a bill introduced this week by Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Archdale.

The bill creates a new Office of Charter Schools that reports directly to the state Board of Education and changes the makeup of the Charter School Advisory Board, giving the governor a little less clout and adding “a charter school advocate.”

Charter schools make up a growing segment of the public school scene, especially in the Charlotte region. Three new charters will open in Charlotte next month and two statewide online charter schools are approved to join the mix.

In the past two school years, Charlotte has also seen three charters fold within months of their debut, leaving other schools to absorb their students.

That’s why oversight of the schools, which receive public money but are run by private nonprofit boards, is considered crucial. Joel Medley, head of North Carolina’s Office of Charter Schools, recently left that job to work for one of the online charter schools, leaving the top post open.

Charter advocates like to note that the schools are public schools, but exactly how public has been a matter of ongoing debate.

News media and state officials have wrangled over public disclosure of charter school salaries. Governing boards must be nonprofit and comply with open meetings laws, but they can contract with private for-profit management companies to run the schools. Those companies can keep some of their salaries private and don’t have to disclose their profits.

Critics point out that charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, don’t have to provide meals or transportation, which can weed out disadvantaged students. Supporters counter that charters are shortchanged because they don’t get local money for buildings.

Tillman, who co-chairs the Senate’s education committee, plugged the proposed changes into an earlier bill that would have allowed charter schools to charge fees for extracurricular activities. His committee adopted the substitute version Wednesday.

Under Tillman’s plan, the new Office of Charter Schools would “consist of an executive director appointed by the State Board of Education and such other professional, administrative, technical, and clerical personnel as may be necessary.”

The advisory board, which reviews applications and recommends approval or rejection to the state Board of Education, would no longer include a member of the state board. Instead, the board of education would name someone “who is a charter school advocate in North Carolina.”

The governor would still appoint three members to the advisory board, but would no longer have the power to name the chair.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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