Charter school reform: Fightin' words

Wednesday's Senate debate over Senate Bill 8, the Charter School Reform bill, got pretty heated when the topic turned to access for lower-income kids.

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Laura Leslie
Wednesday's Senate debate over Senate Bill 8, the Charter School Reform bill, got pretty heated when the topic turned to access for lower-income kids.

Republicans said removing the 100-school cap and allowing charters to proliferate would be in the best interest of all students, high- and low-income alike. But Democrats argued that new charters should be required to offer transportation and subsidized food programs some low-income students depend on. Otherwise, they said, families who depend on those services won’t truly have equal access to charter schools.

Senate Education co-chair Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, replied that no student is forced to go to a charter school. He said parents should look into charters before they apply. If charters don’t provide the services their low-income students might need, “They can go to the public school and get the free lunch and the free transportation,” he said, adding that the “marketplace” of education would sort things out.

As I’ve noted before, the Senate tends to be a pretty collegial body, even across party lines, and even on sensitive topics like race and education. But Tillman’s comment elicited this blunt response from freshman Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford:

"I’m saddened by the fact that I don’t think we really care about education for everybody, but we care about education for those of us who can make sure our kids get it. And about the others, who will end up in poor public schools, that will have to share their funds since we’re not giving any extra money, then we don’t care about those children, wherever they end up on the streets or wherever. It does not appear – regardless of what you’re saying, I don’t think you care."

Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, visibly angry, jumped to his feet to object.  “I get so frustrated when I hear comments made like I just heard. It’s as if we don’t care. And I’m gonna tell you something: Everybody in this room cares.”

Apodaca talked about a proposed charter for at-risk students in his district, a school that was stalled by the charter cap the bill would remove. “We care very deeply. I get offended by that. I think with the hearts and the minds of the people of North Carolina, we want all our children to succeed, not just a select few… To sit here and say that we don’t care about education is just wrong.”

After session, I asked Robinson about her comments during the debate. She walked it back a little, but not much.


Bill sponsor Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, seemed as offended as Apodaca was by Robinson’s comments.

Stevens has argued for some time that schools like Raleigh Charter High School and Raleigh’s Hope Elementary School prove that charters are diverse schools, and that their private governing boards have the best interests of all kids at heart.

The final Senate vote on S8 is set for Thursday. It’s expected to surface in House committees next week.

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