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Charter school changes move forward

Posted February 23, 2011 4:01 a.m. EST
Updated February 23, 2011 6:52 p.m. EST

— The state Senate is expected to hold a final vote Thursday on big changes to North Carolina’s charter school system.

Senate Bill 8 would remove the cap on the number of charters that can operate in the state. That limit is currently set at 100. It would also allow counties to use public money and lottery funds to help pay for charter school construction.

The measure would also set up a new commission to approve, oversee, and revoke charter school licenses. The commission would function independently of the State Board of Education, though the Board could overturn its decisions by a three-fourths vote.

The Senate tentatively approved the bill Wednesday by a 34-16 vote after an hour of heated debate along party lines.

Republican supporters say the changes would offer more options to more students who aren’t being served well in existing schools. And bill sponsor Senator Richard Stevens, R-Wake, says the funding changes will give charters a chance at a more equitable share of education spending than they currently get.

But Senate Democrats said the bill doesn’t do enough to make sure the new charters are equally accessible to all students. They argued the schools should be required to offer the same busing and subsidized food programs as traditional schools.

“If you allow people to set up charter schools that do not provide transportation, do not provide free lunch, you’re setting up barriers to poor children,” said Senator Doug Berger, D-Franklin.

Senate Education co-chairman Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, replied that no student is forced to go to a charter school. He said if charters don’t provide services low-income students need, “They can go to the public school and get the free lunch and the free transportation.”

Senator Charlie Dannelly, D-Mecklenburg, argued the bill would set up what amounts to a dual educational system.

“People have common sense,” Dannelly told the Senate. “If you don’t want to me to go someplace, you don’t offer me the choices that I need to get the education I need. No matter how you dress it up, we are eliminating those children from those charter schools.”

The implication angered Senate Republicans. “Charter schools are diverse,” Stevens argued, noting that the law would still require charters to “reasonably reflect” the racial and ethnic makeup of their local school district.

“We want all our children to succeed, not just a select few,” added Senator Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson. “If the right thing’s not being done, we’re here every year. We can change it.”

After its final Senate vote Thursday, the proposal will move on to the House, where it’s likely to be taken up in committee next week.