Raleigh, N.C. — The Senate Education Committee pushed through a measure Wednesday that would create a new independent board to oversee the state's charter schools, something backers say will give the publicly funded but privately run institutions more thoughtful oversight.
Currently, charters are overseen by the State Board of Education, which is primarily responsible for running the state public school system. While they receive tax dollars, they are allowed to tailor their curriculum to meet the needs of certain populations or students with a particular interest.
"What we're wanting is a good, harmonious working relationship," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, the bill's sponsor.
Tillman said officials running the public school system have not always been interested in helping charter schools improve and develop. "It's been hands-off at best."
Opponents of the bill have worried that creating a second board would be wasteful in tough economic times and have wondered whether a board created exclusively to oversee charters would be skeptical enough regarding the schools' finances and curricula.
The measure next goes to the Senate budget committee and then to the Finance Committee, before heading to the floor. If approved there, it would move on to the House.
The committee held a public hearing on the bill last week but did not take comments from the public Wednesday. That caused grumbling among some audience members, three of whom stood silently in the back of the room. Two of the three wrapped scarves around their mouths as a sign they were being prevented from talking.
Members of the sergeant-at-arms staff, civilians employed to keep order in committees and on the House and Senate floors, summoned the General Assembly Police. Several officers arrived and removed three adults and two children from the committee room.
According to General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver, they were asked to leave the legislative complex.
"They were not identified, and there were no arrests," Weaver said via email.
Committee Chairman Dan Soucek, R-Watauga, said that the people were removed at his direction.
"We don't allow protests in here," Soucek said.
Asked whether he was troubled that there were some people who felt as if they had not had an opportunity to speak about the bill, Soucek noted that the measure was in its 18th draft. He pointed to last week's hearing and the fact that members have been getting and responding to phone calls.
"We've spent more time on this bill than anything else in this committee," Soucek said.
Amendments turned back
The committee turned back three amendments offered to Tillman's bill.
One, offered by Sen. Austin Allran, R-Catawba, would have required that charter schools perform background checks on all employees.
"This is a requirement, Sen. Allran would have you believe, that is very benign. They do that already," Tillman said. "Do you want to make that same requirement for the public schools? You never offered that amendment. You never tried to make that a law. They're doing what they need to do to stay in operation, to make their kids safe, and I'm not putting a regulation on them we have for nobody else. They all do it. They're credible institutions. That's another mandate that we want to put on somebody who has every capability to run their schools the way they should."
The amendment failed on a voice vote.
Another amendment offered by Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, would have created a second path under which charter schools could gain recognition.
Under Tillman's bill, all charters would have to apply to a central charter school board, which would operate largely in parallel to the State Board of Education. The state board would have the ability to veto any grant of a charter school but only on a vote of three-quarters of its members.
Hartsell's amendment would have allowed charters to apply to their local school systems, community colleges or universities. If those institutions approved, the state board would have final say. The measure would have bypassed approval by the newly created charter board.
Tillman objected to this amendment as well, and other members of the committee said that they thought it would complicated the process.
"The bill as written does the job in the cleanest, easiest way," said Sen. Bill Rabin, R-Harnett, siding with Tillman.
Rep. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, backed Hartsell's suggestion.
Some charters, he said, have been happy working with the state school board.
"They like to be part of the process. They like partnering with their (local school system)," Woodard said. "They want an ongoing partnership. They don't want to be placed in a separate silo."
Hartsell's amendment also failed on a voice vote.
Other provisions change charter law
If it gets final approval, the new charter board would have 11 members, and the state superintendent of public instruction would serve as its secretary. The board would have the authority to dissolve or not renew a school's charter and would have the power to replace the organization running a particular school.
Tillman's bill tweaks charter-related laws in other ways as well. For example, it exempts properties used by charter schools from taxation even if the charter school doesn't own the property.
Paul Norcross a co-founder and board member for the Phoenix Academy charter in High Point, said the bill won't change much for his or other charter schools. There is already a separate advisory panel that advises the State Board of Education on charters.
"It's not a real stretch from where we are now," he said.
However, the measure is clearly designed to make sure the state panel with direct oversight on charter schools is friendly to them.
Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, asked whether people with a business interest in running charters would be allowed to serve on the board.
"Senator, I hope they will be 100 (percent) bleeding-heart advocates for charter schools," Tillman said.
Several times during the meeting, Soucek mentioned that time was limited and that he planned to hold a vote on the bill.
Asked after the meeting why the urgency, Soucek said the measure had already gotten a lot of attention and still had a long way to go through the legislative process.
"There comes a time when you have to move things forward," he said.
At the end of the meeting, it was unclear whether the chairman had a proper motion to vote the bill out of committee on the floor. The voice vote sounded close to audience members, with opponents sounding slightly louder than backers. However, no opponents asked for a formal count of the votes.
"I think it was clear," Soucek said of the bill's passage, adding that just because one side is louder does not mean they have more numbers. "I looked at who was voting and it was clear who was in favor."