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NC charter school changes approved by Senate panel

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s current 100-charter school limit would end in a measure that cleared a Senate committee today, despite complaints by Democrats and traditional school supporters it lacks enough accountability to ensure opportunity for at-risk students to attend.

A divided Senate education committee approved the rewrite of the charter school law first approved in the mid-1990s, when the 100-charter cap was created. Charter school boosters have tried seemingly ever since to raise or eliminate the cap, but the Democratic-controlled Legislature has declined to do so.

The Republican takeover of the Legislature has made eliminating the cap — part the GOP’s campaign platform — very likely.

“We haven’t lost sight of that goal,” said Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, the chief sponsor of the bill, which now heads to the full Senate.

The bill goes further, creating a new 11-member North Carolina Public Charter Schools Commission that would approve charter application and revoke charters for poorly performing or managed schools and set other rules. Responding to arguments earlier this month that creating a separate commission was unconstitutional, today’s measure would place the commission under the State Board of Education. The board also could overturn the charter school panel decisions with a three-fourths majority.

Charter schools have open enrollment and don’t charge tuition. They are operated by private boards and exempt from many rules imposed on traditional public schools.

The measure leaves in place a requirement in state law that a charter school’s population reasonably reflect an area’s racial and ethnic composition. Many schools, however, have decided to emphasize targeting certain at-risk populations, which sometimes create disproportionate school populations.

The committee defeated an amendment by Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, that would have required future charter schools to provide transportation and food for students in low-income families, which is now optional but is required by traditional public schools. Charter schools that didn’t meet the racial and ethnic requirements would have been required to propose a plan to reach those goals.

“My goal and objective is to create a solid foundation where these school can work in conjunction with the public schools so that it opens it up for everyone,” Graham said.

Stevens said some charter schools are unable to provide breakfast or lunch for students because they lack buildings to offer them, so providing them should be optional. As for racial diversity, charter school supporters point out enrollment in the 99 current charter schools are voluntary and often decided through random drawings. Graham’s amendment also would have weighted such lotteries toward at-risk students.

Darrin Hartness, superintendent of Mount Airy City Schools, cautioned senators against failing to provide enough accountability in the legislation so that charter schools are closely monitored.

“This is important to ensure that charter schools are free public schools and they are truly open to all students, regardless of their race, their socio-economic status or their disability, just as the traditional public schools,” he said. But eliminating the cap will help do just that by removing more than 20,000 families on waiting lists for current charters, according to charter school advocates.

“It is simply about what is in the best interests of all public schools in North Carolina,” said Michael Pratt, headmaster of Rocky Mount Preparatory Academy, a 1,000-student charter school, of which 60 percent of the students are black. He said the school has a 100 percent college acceptance rate to two- and four-year schools.

“A quality education for all of the public school children in North Carolina is the civil rights issue of the 21st century,” he said.

The North Carolina Association of Educators, a longtime opponent of raising the cap, said recently it wouldn’t oppose lifting it. But the teachers’ group is opposed to today’s measure, association lobbyist Brian Lewis said.

Stevens disagreed with complaints by Lewis and Democratic senators that the bill was moving too fast, saying he’s been waiting for years to get legislation considered.

“It’s time,” Stevens said. “This bill still has a way to go.”

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