NC Senate approves bill to create fast track for new charter schools

ahelms@charlotteobserver.comJune 17, 2014 

The N.C. Senate unanimously approved a bill Tuesday that would create a fast-track review process for successful charter schools that want to clone themselves and chains that want to expand their presence.

The bill, which now goes to the House, clarifies that the independent public schools must comply with public records and open meeting laws. It was recently revised to include the fast-track plan.

The pace of North Carolina’s charter school expansion and the role of out-of-state chains has sparked heated debate in recent weeks. After lifting the 100-school cap in 2011, the state Board of Education approved 23 new schools to open in 2013 and 27 to open in 2014 (two have since sought to delay a year).

The board has not yet voted on 2015-16 applications, but the state’s Charter School Advisory Board has endorsed only 12 of 71 applications. The advisory panel rejected most applications from out-of-state for-profit management groups such as Charter Schools USA and National Heritage Academies, both of which run schools in the Charlotte area.

Alan Hawkes, an advisory board member from Greensboro appointed by Senate leader Phil Berger, rebuked his colleagues, saying GOP leaders want to see “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.” Hawkes is a board member of two Guilford County charter schools run by National Heritage Academies.

The charter bill sponsored by Sens. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, and Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, would require the Board of Education to create a process for “fast track replication of high quality charter schools,” including those that are modeled on existing North Carolina schools and those that plan to contract with for-profit or nonprofit management companies that have a record of success in North Carolina. If the House approves the bill, the Board of Education must create the process by December.

The bill also would require the Board of Education to set up a process for successful charter schools to take over those that face closure for “inadequate performance.”

It also would clear the way for single-sex charter schools and allow charter school boards to give preferred admission to board members’ children. The bill spells out that charter schools are subject to the same personnel privacy and disclosure requirements as other public schools.

That issue emerged in March, when the Observer requested salaries for area charter schools. Charter boards agree to abide by N.C. Open Meeting and Public Records laws as part of their agreement to receive public money. But that requirement is not spelled out in state law, and attorney Richard Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor and charter school pioneer, has argued that charter schools are not required to disclose salaries by name.

The Observer posted salaries for 22 Charlotte-area charter schools, but Lincoln and Sugar Creek charter schools, which are represented by Vinroot, gave names only for their top few administrators. Vinroot has told the Observer he is waiting for clarification from state lawmakers before responding to repeated requests for full salary disclosure.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms

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