Charter Shakeup: Impact of Proposals Weighed Locally
Troubled Past for Area Charter Schools
Clck here to read about the history of troubles involving local charter schools.
As state lawmakers contemplate comprehensive changes to the N.C. charter school law, local educators are watching to see how a new law could affect education in Moore County.
Last week, the Senate Education committee reviewed a bill proposed by Wake County Sen. Richard Stevens to remove the current charter school cap and alter many ways in which charter schools are regulated by the state.
Removal of the cap that restricts the number of charter schools in North Carolina to 100 was a major plank in the Republican platform during last fall’s midterm elections.
The bill also seeks to establish a Public Charter Schools Commission as a licensing body that would operate independently from the State Board of Education, which is the current governing body that grants and revokes charters. The commission would have 11 members, including the N.C. superintendent of public instruction and other members appointed by the governor and the General Assembly.
Among other provisions in the bill, charter schools would also be able to receive funding from local county governments and state lottery proceeds to purchase land and buildings for their facilities.
Proponents of the bill see opportunity for more innovation in N.C. education, while opponents believe the bill could allow charter schools to overtake the public school system without regulations that establish proper oversight in charter operations.
Moore County has two charter schools — The Academy of Moore County and STARS.
For STARS Principal Wes Graner, the removal of the cap and some regulations means that charter schools will have the opportunity to gain strength in numbers.
As a new administrator to the charter school, Graner realizes that all the systemic responsibilities typically handled by a central office in a public school system fall in the laps of charter administrators.
“You’re kind of alone in it,” he said. “It’s not a close-knit network.”
Graner said that in the last month, he has been speaking with Allyson Schoen, director of education of The Academy of Moore, to exchange ideas on what works in their respective schools.
The two principals speak regularly, and they have even tossed around ideas that would encourage the two schools to share some resources, such as the cost of providing teacher workshops and IT support, to save money in the future.
“You develop that natural camaraderie, and you try to reach out and do different things together,” Graner said.
Graner said that with more local charter schools, there could be more opportunities for that kind of collaboration and innovation on a larger scale.
He added that new avenues for charter funding would always be appreciated, but he quickly surmised that more money would mean more regulation, not less.
“With more money will come more accountability and more strict policies on how you do things,” he said.
Proponents of the bill believe that a separate commission overseeing the licensure of charter schools would give charters a more equal footing with traditional public schools in the state’s eyes.
Graner said that though he finds working with the Office of Charter Schools to be very helpful, he thinks a separate commission would give charter schools a strong resource for information, as well as a comprehensive understanding of their purpose at the state level.
“I would think to have a centralized group to understand the nuances of charter schools would be helpful,” he said. “Those types of things, when done right, give you more resources. It would depend on the scope and design of it, but I can see it being really beneficial, especially for schools that find themselves in our types of situations or schools that are doing really great.”
‘Creating Another System’
While charter schools could see more opportunity for growth, the Moore County public school system has concerns about the bill’s items that extend further than removal of the cap.
Superintendent Susan Purser questions the need for more charter schools and believes that the legislation’s passage could reduce funding for traditional public schools and possibly create redundancies for the state’s entire education system.
“By raising this cap, we’re suggesting that we need a whole lot more to operate in this other arena,” she said. “If there’s something they’re seeing in the charter schools that is really working, why don’t they pass that recommendation on to the K-12 schools?
“The purpose of the charter school is to have an avenue for innovation. It seems to me that we’re trying to create another school system. We’re creating a second school system that has some of the requirements, but not all of them.”
Purser thinks that instead of duplicating the system, the state should consider allowing more flexibility in the regulation of teaching standards for all schools so that innovation can be encouraged everywhere, not just in a small sector.
The Moore County public school system is currently trying to encourage more innovative teaching methods in its classrooms through its “Growing to Greatness” model.
Purser was quick to add that the public school system isn’t perfect, and there is a lot of room for improvement.
“I would be the last person to suggest we’ve got all the issues knocked out,” she said. “We haven’t, but creating another parallel system just makes more redundancies.”
More Funding Losses
Mike Griffin, chief financial officer for Moore County Schools, says passage of the bill in its current state could cause the school system to lose an additional $30,000 per year in revenue.
Each year, the school system gives a certain amount of its per-pupil funding to STARS and The Academy of Moore County.
Per-pupil funding is money allotted to the school system from the state and the county based on schools’ average daily membership (ADM), which records the average number of students attending a school on a given day.
Both traditional public schools and charter schools receive per-pupil funding from the state based on student numbers at the beginning of the year.
However, the Moore County school system contributes $700,000 annually to the charter schools for their share of per-pupil funding from the county and money from fines and forfeitures.
Griffin said that with some provisions in the current bill, the Moore County school system would also have to provide a charter schools with a share of funding for programs with specific uses, such as preschool programs, exceptional children’s (EC) programs and ROTC at the high school level.
Griffin said that charter schools would receive a share of these funds even if they did not have any of those specific programs and that they could in turn take the money and use it for general purposes.
“We’re generating those funds for specific students for specific programs,” he said. “They’re not to be used in general for anything that we do in Moore County Schools. They’re generated for specific [programs]. We feel like those funds should remain with those programs and with those students.”
He added that charter schools already have the ability to receive funding for those specific programs on their own if they need to accommodate students with specific needs, like an EC program.
Griffin said the additional revenues lost will hit harder as the system undergoes state budget cuts. The system expects to lose $8.2 million in cuts this year.
“When we have to lose another $30,000, that affects our ability to fund positions,” he said. “It could impact our ability to provide services in those specific areas, but it could also be anywhere in Moore County Schools.”
Griffin acknowledged that the school system is not opposed to the entire bill.
“There are portions of the bill that we’re not necessarily opposed to, but it’s more than just raising the cap,” he said. “There are a number of items in the bill that should be studied further before implemented.”
Graner knows what critics of charter schools say, but he thinks the relationship between charter schools and traditional public schools should not be oppositional.
“I think a lot of the opponents want to pit public schools against charter schools,” he said. “I don’t know how you can put [charter schools] at odds with a public school system when they’re trying to do the same thing.”
Graner, a former administrator and teacher in the Moore County system, said he still calls his old colleagues from time to time for advice.
“I don’t think the design was ever necessarily to make us enemies,” he said. “I think it was to help kids, and if [STARS] can help kids and keep them in school through the arts, and as long as we’re doing it right by the guidelines that a group put forth, I think we’re doing a good job.”
Since the bill’s proposal Jan. 27, several groups and individuals have lined up on both sides of the the issue.
Democrats have raised questions ranging from where accountability standards come into play to the effects of removing the current law’s requirement that a charter school population must reflect the local racial and ethnic composition.
Some have suggested that the cap be lifted slowly, instead of being removed all altogether.
State Superintendent June Atkinson has said that she believes the creation of a separate commission is unconstitutional because the state constitution assigns the duties of supervising and administering a public schools system to the State Board of Education.
Suggestions have been made that the commission be more of an advisory committee under the State Board of Education.
A similar committee was eliminated by the state several years ago because the committee maintained a light workload due to the charter cap.
Throughout discussions of the bill, Stevens has said that his proposal is just a starting point for reforms, and he welcomes suggestions that will improve the bill.
Gov. Beverly Perdue has not said whether or not she would sign the bill into law if it passes in the legislature.
‘Speculation Is Silly’
Walt Bennett, a member of The Academy of Moore’s Board of Directors, says it’s hard to speculate specifically what the future could hold for N.C. charter schools just by looking at the bill’s initial proposal.
“I can’t begin to wonder how that will come out,” he said. “Speculation is silly because you don’t know what kind of a turn that might take at the end.”
Bennett does think concerns over regulations becoming too loose with the bill are a little overblown.
He said he believes there will be a strong accountability system in place for charter schools, regardless of the bill’s outcome.
To remain open, charter schools must demonstrate that they are in state compliance with academics, finances and governance from its board of directors.
“If you can do those things, you keep yourself out of trouble,” he said. “I can’t imagine that changing no matter who’s running the show.”
But he added, “Charter schools, in the environment of a Republican legislature, are going to get along better than they were prior to this.”
Contact Hannah Sharpe at email@example.com.
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