What started as a move to allow more charter schools turned into a fierce debate about the future of education in the state, with House Democrats charging that a bill that won preliminary approval Thursday will destroy traditional public schools.
The bill passed on a mostly party-line House vote, 69-48.
"We need more opportunities for children to learn and grow," said House Majority Leader Paul Stam, an Apex Republican. Republicans have tried for years to increase the charter school limit. Republicans made lifting the 100-school cap a priority this year, saying parents want more options. Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools follow.
Democrats spent much of Thursday trashing the bill in a committee meeting, news conferences and during the floor debate.
A final House vote is expected Monday. The bill must then go back to the Senate, which approved a much different version in February. Senators would have to approve changes the House made before the bill goes to Gov. Bev Perdue for her signature.
House Democrats said the proposal, which will allow the current limit to be lifted by 50 schools a year, would increase school segregation, encourage poorly regulated cyber schools and drain money from already strapped traditional schools.
"I think there is a high likelihood the governor will veto it," said House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, a Democrat from Orange County. House Democrats were prepared to support a reasonable charter school bill, he said, but this one "is damaging, divisive and demoralizing" to traditional public schools.
Perdue spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said it's too soon to say how the governor will respond if the proposal gets to her unchanged.
"The governor will be watching it carefully," Pearson said.
Bipartisan effort cited
After the vote, House Speaker Thom Tillis said Republicans worked for hours with House Democrats and a representative from Perdue's office, trying to get a proposal that would win bipartisan support.
He said he's come to think that House Democrats never intended to vote for more charters. "I think that the Democrat caucus has been against this bill from the beginning," he said.
The N.C. Association of Educators and the School Boards Association oppose the bill.
Civitas opposed bill
It also drew fire from the right. Francis DeLuca, executive director of the conservative Civitas Institute, posted a review of the bill on the organization's web site called "Time to Walk Away." He argued that the bill sacrificed too many principles that help define charter schools.
The bill makes substantial changes to the current charter law, adding more requirements.
Existing charters are not required to provide bus service or provide lunch, but new schools would have to offer transportation to low-income students who live within three miles, and would have to provide those students with free lunch. The new requirements are a response to critics who said poor students are barred from some top charters because they have no way of getting to them or need subsidized meals.
Democrats wanted to expand the transportation requirement to up to 10 miles in rural areas and five miles in cities, and set nutrition standards for school food.
The bill keeps provisions Republicans wanted, allowing charters to share in lottery money and letting counties give them money for construction. Charters would be allowed to spend classroom money on buildings. A major complaint from charter schools and their supporters has been that they do not get state money for construction.
Democrats also wanted diversity standards, with weighted lotteries that would favor students moving from a low-performing school.
Calling it 'meanness'
Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, said the bill would lead to increased segregation and cause a decline in test scores in traditional schools as higher achieving students move to charters.
"The arrogance, meanness and viciousness with this bill being passed is something we can't stand," he said.
"The meanness and viciousness is nothing but pure racism," Michaux said. "It affects all of us who are least able to go to these charter schools."
The state already has some mostly white and mostly black charters. According to Duke University researcher Helen Ladd, 37 charters are more than 80 percent white, and 26 are less than 20 percent white.
Charters in 2008-2009 enrolled a smaller proportion of needy children than did traditional schools, according to Ladd. At traditional schools, about 43 percent of students qualified for subsidized meals, while about 24 percent of students at charters did.
Democrats wanted some way to address "over-saturation" of charters in urban areas. Some counties have no charters, while urban counties such as Wake and Durham have a half dozen or more.
Stam said the bill has more diversity provisions than the existing law, and rejected the idea of directing new charters to rural counties.
"We are focused on student learning," he said. "If there is a demand for them in an urban county, fine. Let a hundred flowers bloom."
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