Democratic senators want 'recess' for charter school growth

Posted March 20, 2019 4:48 p.m. EDT
Updated March 20, 2019 4:57 p.m. EDT

— A pair of Wake County senators say North Carolina continues to approve new charter schools with little oversight into how they're using tax dollars and whether they're actually serving students and the local community.

Senate Bill 247 would address those concerns, Sens. Dan Blue, D-Wake, and Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, said Wednesday, by halting any new or revised charters until a legislative committee could study the performance of existing charter schools.

North Carolina first approved charter schools in 1996, and 184 now operate statewide. Blue said more than $580 million in state funding now goes to the schools.

"When the legislature is directing that level of increased spending, it is our responsibility ... to make sure that those dollars are being spent wisely," he said during a news conference. "Available state funds for education spending is at a premium."

Chaudhuri said one of every five charter schools in the state is run by a for-profit management company, and the vast majority of those is based out of state.

Natalie Beyer, a member of the Durham County Board of Education, called the performance of charter schools in her county as "abysmal." Six of the 14 now in operation received a school performance grade of D, as did both of North Carolina's virtual charter schools, she said.

"Sadly, North Carolina's charter school legislation is recreating a new separate and unequal system in our community," Beyer said, noting few charter schools reflect the racial and economic diversity in the county.

The Wake County Public School System passed $36 million in state funds through to charter schools this year, school board member Christine Kushner said.

"There is no clear oversight for the spending of those local funds," Kushner said. "I expect responsible spending for public schools."

The legislation calls for studying everything from charter school student performance, suspension and expulsion rates and teacher turnover to how well charter schools conform to open meetings and public records laws and whether they adequately serve disabled students.

The study would need to be completed by March 2021.

"The bottom line is we need to take a break, review what's working and what doesn't work and then decide how to move forward," Chaudhuri said.

Republican lawmakers slammed the proposal as "anti-choice," noting charter school enrollment is growing in North Carolina because many parents see them as a better option than traditional public schools.

"This is a clear attempt to strip parents of their ability to decide on the education that’s best for their children," Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, said in a statement. "Instead of embracing a parent’s right to choose the best education, [opponents'] answer is to make it illegal for charter schools to grow."

Blue dismissed that argument.

"We want traditional public schools and our charter schools to succeed. We don't want to pit one against the other. We think there's a need for both," he said.