Politics & Government

‘Let’s take the reins off.’ NC lawmakers back changes to help charter schools.

North Carolina’s charter schools could have an easier time getting renewed and expanding their enrollment under changes backed Tuesday by some state lawmakers.

The state House Education Committee backed a charter school bill that included new wording added Tuesday that says charters don’t have to be outperforming nearby schools to be renewed for 10 years. The new wording also lifts the enrollment cap on the state’s two virtual charter schools, which both have been low-performing since they opened in 2015.

“Let’s take the reins off and not try to put stumbling blocks in the way and not continue trying to beat down charter schools,” said Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican.

An effort by Rep. Graig Meyer, a Chapel Hill Democrat, to remove the wording allowing the virtual schools to add more students was defeated in a 14-11 vote.

“I would recommend that this legislative body not give the green light for them to serve more students until they improve their performance,” Meyer said.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow. For instance, they’re not required to provide school bus service or serve school meals. They also have more flexibility in how they spend their money, don’t have to follow the school calendar law and don’t need all their teachers to be licensed.

In addition to the brick-and-mortar charter schools, state lawmakers approved two virtual charters.

Both N.C. Connections Academy and N.C. Virtual Academy opened in 2015 in what was originally supposed to be a four-year pilot program ordered by state lawmakers. Despite the poor academic results, state lawmakers showed their support for the two virtual schools last summer by extending the pilot program to 2023.

But when the pilot was extended, lawmakers didn’t include the option for the schools to expand past a cap of 2,592 students set when the program was first created.

In April, the Senate passed a bill allowing State Superintendent Mark Johnson to approve bonds for financing charter school facilities. The House Education Committee added on to Senate Bill 392 on Tuesday by:

Requiring the State Board of Education to give a 10-year renewal to a charter school if its students are performing within at least five percentage points on state exams of the school district where it’s located. Current law says charter schools have to be comparable.

Allowing the virtual schools to reach an enrollment of up to 3,000 students by the eighth year of the pilot. This differs from a bill approved by the Senate in May that would set no enrollment limit for the schools.

Meyer noted that the state board can allow both virtual schools to add more students despite the cap. He said that lawmakers should stay out of the issue and leave it to the educators.

But Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and co-chairman of the House Education Committee, argued against Meyer’s amendment. He said the performance of the two virtual schools shouldn’t be used to block them from adding more students.

“To take a snapshot in time I think is unfair as well as inappropriate,” Horn said. “We should allow the virtual pilots to continue, allow parents to see whether or not this works for them.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.