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SB 337 Imperils NC Charter Schools

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Legislation is making its way through the NC General Assembly that would, despite good intentions, set North Carolina’s already battered charter school movement back significantly. The Senate-passed bill that is now in the House is SB 337 and while it is intended to address some of the problems charter schools face, it instead adds more layers of troublesome bureaucracy, threatening charter autonomy, the potential for additional authorizers and any real effort to ensure objective oversight and accountability.

Supporters do not understand the implications of this legislation. One only has to look to other states where such policies are in place to see the negative effects on growth and quality. We’ve outlined our concerns with SB 337 below and a more full discussion can be found on the NC page of our website.

We have issues with national organizations that wish to impose their ideas on states for the purposes of working in that state. The Center for Education Reform is focused on North Carolina for two simple reasons – the first is that we helped advocate for and ensured the adoption of the initial law, and thus got to know the first charter leaders. We saw the important role they played in changing the landscape for education for so many children. And we still communicate with many of them. The second is the basis for why CER exists – we know that good policies result in strong charter schools and more opportunities for parents, and we’ve studied them – for nearly two decades. We also have seen bad policies enacted that sounded good on paper to start and were quickly manipulated by people not supportive of education reforms that put decision making closest to children.

As one colleague in your state shared with his colleagues today, “I know that many of us are reluctant to heed the advice of those from ‘outside’ individuals and groups, fearing that their motivation is to take credit for our hard work or capitalize (literally) on our efforts. The Center for Education Reform is not that kind of group. Rather, they have been a dependable source of information, counsel, and encouragement for school reformers and lowly policy analysts across North Carolina.”

SB 337 is one of those bad policy cases that is written to ensure that charters are protected but actually instead ensures that charters will be more highly regulated from the state and its leadership. The most fundamental rule of good policy making is that the laws must work no matter who is in power. Laws that are based on a particularl party being in power never work.

We want to see the NC charter law be supportive of all charters and work to create new ones. We believe that changes are in order and that your leaders have some good ideas on ways to make the environment more robust. But until your lawmakers are well educated about the various impacts of policy as it exists in dozens of other states and understand how the current law functions or fails, mistakes will be made.

The best and most important addition right now to your state’s charter environment is the ability for universities to create charter authorizing agencies to which applicants can choose to apply AS AN ALTERNATIVE to the State Board, not as a replacement. The enormously successful charter environment that exists as a result of such policies is evident in Michigan, in New York, in Indiana, in Missouri and elsewhere.

Having multiple authorizers that include universities does not mean that another level of bureaucracy is needed to “authorize” the authorizers. The universities are already publicly accountable for funding to the legislature and to their constituents.

Providing for universities is currently an option in the original NC charter law. There is no reason to strike it from the law as SB 337 does. There is also no reason to turn the Advisory Committee for charters – an optional board made permissible by law – into a permanent body. Doing so ensures that for years to come, charter schools will be accountable first to the state education department that is governed by an elected superintendent who controls most of the money flow at the Department of Public Instruction.

Besides striking university potential from the law, SB 337:

• Requires charter applicants to “have the ability” to run a charter school, subjecting applicants to arbitrary measures of “proof” regarding their ability to run a school. Was KIPP Founder Mike Feinberg subjected to such “ability” requirements of law when he first started? Were you? This kind of language gives license to regulators to create new definitions of “ability”

• Defines who charters can enroll and who they can exclude, potentially threatening a charter’s ability to receive federal funds

• Clarifies local funding distribution while putting more control in education department to rectify funding disputes

We urge you to take a step back if you are pushing this proposal. If you are unaware of this proposal it’s time to weigh in with your school leadership, your association, and your legislature.

Please take time to read the detailed information we have created for you about charter school laws, their effectiveness, the purpose and practice of multiple authorizing and how NC fares when it comes to these important policies for children.

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