September 13, 2012
The State Board of Education approved 25 new charter schools on September 6. The approval process for charter schools changed in 2011, when a new state law created a Charter School Advisory Board to review applications and provide preliminary approval before the State Board of Education either approved or rejected the applications.
Eight new charter schools in the state opened this year after the State Board approved them in the “fast-track” process. Nine charters were approved but one did not open because of it lacked a facility. That charter, the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School, applied and was approved in this round, but it still does not have a building in which to hold classes.
Matt Ellinwood, Policy Analyst for the Education and Law Project, wrote a letter to the State Board asking the members to be deliberate and cautious as they considered approving the 25 charter applications. The letter contained a chart with explanations of the strengths and weaknesses of each applicant.
We have several concerns about the 25 charter school applicants.
Transportation – Many of the applicants will not transport students to and from school. Some applicants actually claim carpooling is their transportation plan. This clearly prevents students from low-income families that don’t have reliable vehicles or can’t afford the additional gas expenditures from attending these schools.
Oversight – When the legislature removed the cap of 100 charter schools, allowing an unlimited number to operate in the state, it exacerbated the problem of oversight of these schools. The Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Charter Schools did not have nearly enough staff to cover 100 schools. Now, its staff of five will potentially have to monitor 133 schools. When asked at the State Board meeting if his office could monitor several more schools, Joel Medley, director of the Office of Charter Schools, replied, “It will be difficult.”
North Carolina should not make the oversight and accountability of new public schools difficult. If the process was changed to ensure more schools can open, there should at least be a process for the office charged with monitoring these schools to obtain the staff it needs to ensure that students get the high-quality education they deserve.
For-profit Corporations – In his letter, Ellinwood also brought up the concern that several of the applicants planned to contract with Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) or Educational Management Organizations (EMOs). Although state law says only non-profit corporations can form and run charter schools, CMOs and EMOs are often for-profit corporations that provide services to the schools. Since non-profit charter school boards are not accountable to voters like local school districts are, it is important that the non-profit boards do not, as Ellinwood states, “become a ‘shell’ created to allow the CMO or EMO to operate a school.”
Local Impact – Some school systems sent local impact statements explaining what effect new charter schools would have on their districts. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) said the five charters approved in its district would have an undesirable impact. Eleven public schools in mostly minority neighborhoods closed in Charlotte last year. Peter Gorman, CMS’s former superintendent, said it was a move to save money. It seems unwise to open schools less than three years after several schools closed. Because charter schools are public schools, the chance for cost savings probably won’t occur because public money will be given to these new schools.
Even with the concerns, the State Board approved all 25 applications. It is now up to the thinly staffed Office of Charter Schools and community and education advocates and activists to ensure that these schools succeed.