As a longtime supporter of charter schools, I am relieved to watch bi-partisan legislators as they assist this popular and proven system for school improvement and further enhance it as a force for strengthening public education for all children in North Carolina.
Charter schools are free schools of choice that are required by law to accept every North Carolina child who applies. Current and proposed legislation clearly states the requirement: “A charter school shall not discriminate against any student on the basis of ethnicity, national origin, gender, or disability.” 
I have helped start two rural K-8 charter schools in North Carolina that began with 53 students in 2000 and now exceed 1,800 students with several hundreds more on waiting lists. Both are Schools of Distinction and serve many low-income and minority families from five surrounding counties who could not otherwise afford to choose an alternative to their district schools.
Unfortunately, there are many citizens who have numerous misunderstandings about charter schools regarding their history, their statutory duties, and their role under the North Carolina Constitution.
Mr. Edward Fiske illustrates some of these misunderstandings in his recent opinion piece in the NewsObserver, “The hijacking of charter schools.” 
Integral? No. Independent!
For example, he erroneously states that from their 1990’s beginnings “proponents recognized that they are integral parts of established public school systems.” Mr. Fiske goes on to assert “that [in North Carolina] charters are part of our constitutionally mandated ‘general and uniform system of free public schools.’” He further opines that legislation currently proposed in the house and senate would “hijack” this “integral part” of our traditional education system.
Charter schools are creations of state law, and today 41 states have laws permitting charter schools, of which there are nearly 6,000 charters nation-wide serving over 2,300,000 children. However, they are not considered to be “integral parts of established public school systems” by most of their proponents, as Mr. Fiske claims. In eleven states, the charter schools are totally independent of, and separate from, the traditional system, and they exist apart to a greater or lesser degree in the other states – depending on the compromises necessary to get a charter law passed in that particular state.
The very motive that proponents had for creating charter laws was not to make them integral but rather to make them independent. If we look at North Carolina’s test scores on page 3 of the 1996-97 State Report Card we see that the percentage of students passing the reading tests were 69% for White males and 43% for Black males. 
Why would anyone want to be “an integral part” of a system producing such dubious results? The very motive for our creating charters in 1996 was to free schools from the ponderous regulatory burdens that were partially responsible for dragging down the traditional schools.
For that reason, North Carolina’s charter statute begins, “The purpose of this Part is to authorize a system of charter schools to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently of existing schools.” 
A Constitutional Part? No. An Optional Program.
Mr. Fiske’s assertion that they are “part of our constitutionally mandate system” ignores a 2011 Court of Appeals ruling that states, after a nine-page analysis of this constitutional question, that the General Assembly is free to make charters “as an optional educational program created outside of and in addition to the uniform system of public schools.” 
The legislated purpose since 1996 has been to establish a “system of charter schools” to “operate independently of existing schools” and that purpose has been affirmed by our judicial system.
Serving All: Mockery? No. Mandated!
Mr. Fiske further asserts that the State Charter Board created by this legislation will “make a mockery of the notion that charters are part of a coherent statewide education system with an obligation to serve all students.”
First, Mr. Fiske must be reminded once again that the charter law obligates every charter to serve all students: “A charter school shall not discriminate against any student on the basis of ethnicity, national origin, gender, or disability.” Parents applying to charters are keenly aware of this obligation and do not hesitate to make their voices heard if they feel a charter school has discriminated against their child.
Second and very importantly, just because a system of charter schools may have some degree of independent or self-rule from other systems that does not mean that there are no common elements shared by the two systems. In fact in both pending charter bills, the ultimate controlling authority is given to the State Board of Education. Under the proposed legislation, it has veto power over any decision made by the State Charter Board. Thus, North Carolina will not be joining one of the nearly dozen states which have completely independent systems, but one of the remaining states whereby charters are not independent of the traditional system – in spite of the clear judicial ruling that such independence is permissible should the General Assembly so desire.
No COI? No. COI!
In another stunning proclamation, Mr. Fiske blithely states in bold font that the new Charter Board “would not be bound by conflict of interest laws.” [Mr. Fiske’s emphasis]
This claim is puzzling in the face of GS 138A The State Government Ethics Act that applies to all members of “Any State board, commission, council, committee, task force, authority, or similar public body, however denominated, created by statute or executive order.” Not only does GS 138A apply to the Board’s members, it also applies to the members’ extended families and business interests. Additionally, the Department of Public Schools Policies TCS-C-004 and TCS-C-026 also address conflicts of interest.
If Mr. Fiske is privy to facts that exempt Charter Board members from the Ethics Act, then he should immediately contact the bills’ sponsors and inform them of his discovery. [author’s emphasis] Surely, they would immediately amend their bills appropriately.
Conflicts will inevitably abound. Doctors serve on medical boards; lawyers serve in the legislature; accountants serve on boards overseeing state fiscal matters. Contractors serve on commissions setting building code standards. Service by those knowledgeable in the topics will lead to conflicts of interest, but that is why all meetings are public and all records are subject to the Open Records Act. That is why COI laws apply to all.
Scoffing? Yes. At a Myth!
Mr. Fiske states that the bills are “scoffing at the concept of teacher professionalism,” and then takes umbrage at the bills’ allowing charter to hire teachers who do not hold a current NC certificate. Is this a bad thing? We all know many excellent, hard-working teachers, but we must acknowledge that many of them became excellent only through OJT and self-motivation. The National Council on Teacher Quality consistently grades North Carolina’s teacher preparation programs as a “D-,” and their 2012 report on North Carolina is appalling. Charter schools are about giving parents a choice, but the current law forces charters to draw from the same D- pool of teachers as traditional schools, making it to some degree a Hobson’s choice. The pending bills finally allow a choice in the critical realm of teacher qualifications.
No Accountability? No. Accountability Galore!
Has Mr. Fiske actually read the charter legislation – either current or proposed? He claims the “agenda thumbs its nose at the implicit bargain of the charter movement – flexibility in return for accountability – by eliminating the second half of the equation.”
In fact, Mr. Fiske decries the new legislative enhancements that actually toughen the application requirements and strengthen the oversight of charter schools. The existing 1996 statute allows an applicant to meet either the statutory requirements or the requirements imposed by the Board. The pending bills change the “or” to an “and,” thereby they force the applicant to meet the total collection of requirements from both the statute and the Board.
The pending bills also retain the academic requirements that charter schools must take all the same state end-of-grade tests administered to traditional schools; furthermore, charter schools are subject to closure if their students do not pass at least 60% of these tests . No traditional district school faces such a threat of closure. Should this criteria be applied to district schools there were 155 traditional schools that would have closed in 2009 but are, nevertheless, allowed to remain open and are open today.
Additionally, every charter applicant must state their measurable academic goals; and if they do not meet these contracted-for goals, they are subject to closure.
Finally, the statute requires that every charter school be audited every year for both financial and legal compliance. These audits are conducted by especially certified accounting firms, and their audits are actually audited in turn by a state-wide oversight group of CPAs.
Since passage of the charter law in 1996, there have been 150 charters granted with 100 open as of 2011. Fifty charters opened and closed for one reason or another. Remember, if a parent withdraws their child, the money stops flowing to that school, and if enough parents leave, then the school will be forced to close – that is real accountability directly in the hands of the parents. The charter concept of letting parental choice and competition weed out the poorly performing schools is working very well.
The pending bills, about which Mr. Fiske complains, also make it clear that the State Charter Board will be subject to Section 150B of the General Statutes which ensures that all rules and policies that are adopted by the Board are in compliance with state law. GS 150B thus protects the public from any board, commission, or agency which might be attempting to overstep its authority. (In a January 30, 2013 report, the State Board of Education claimed that it was not subject to any such rule-making oversight, and that controversy is continuing, thus the new bills make this issue explicit.)
Eliminating accountability? The new bills actually increase accountability. Remember the “and” instead of “or” for application requirements cited above. Remember the closure if the applicant’s academic goals are not met. Remember the closure if 60% of the mandated tests are not passed. Remember the annual audits of finances and legal compliance that get published and reported. Remember the audits for Exceptional Children under Federal Title I requirements. Remember the explicit coverage of charters by GS 150B rule-making review. Remember the county health inspectors, the county fire marshals, OSHA, EEOC, and the multitude of other regulatory agencies that drop in unannounced for a check. Remember that a parent may pull their child out of a charter school at any time, and then the money stops. [author’s emphasis]
No Citizen Clamor? No. Citizen Clamor!
Contrary to another of his assertions that “The pending charter school legislation does not reflect any clamor from North Carolina residents” we should recall the overwhelming victory at the polls in 2011 by candidates promising education and charter reform. If the citizens were not clamoring for charter reform, they chose a strange way of showing it by electing veto-proof majorities in the House and the Senate, and installing a pro-reform Governor.
One must conclude that Mr. Fiske did not bother to read the law or the new bills. Else he would not make the blatantly false claim that “leaders have essentially downloaded model legislation formulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council” (ALEC). Indeed, ALEC has two versions of their model charter legislation: a version totally under the state education board with no independent ability, and a version that is a totally independent charter body with no control whatever by the state board.
To the contrary, the proposed legislation rejects both extremes and sets a middle-ground. The new bills merely modify the current law and establish the Charter Board with oversight over the same processes that have been in place since 1996 excepting some increases in accountability. However, the state board still has veto power over the charter board. The 18-page charter act of 1996 cites state board oversight in 92 instances. These remain in the new bills, but now refer to the Charter Board in better fulfillment of the original purpose for “a system of charter schools to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently of existing schools.”
All North Carolinians who believe in the importance of quality public education for all children should support these Republican proposals. At the front of the barricades should be advocates who see the proven successes of charter schools and want to see a good idea made even better.
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