End of 100-school cap is a boon to charters

Republicans crow of a 'tremendous move forward' as most Democrats drop opposition to a modified bill.

Staff WriterJune 10, 2011 

  • Charter schools are public schools that operate without some of the rules written for traditional public schools. Charters do not have to pay teachers according to the state salary scale and they do not have to provide bus service or subsidized meals.

    They are independent of local school boards, and are freer to experiment with different teaching methods. Some have longer school days or years, or hold Saturday sessions.

    What the charter-schools bill does:

    Removes the 100-school cap on charters.

    Allows enrollment growth of 20 percent a year, up from 10 percent.

    Allows charters to charge fees - band fees for example - if the local school district charges them.

    Adopts performance standards and lays out when State Board of Education can revoke or not renew a charter.

The North Carolina legislature voted Thursday to eliminate the 100-school limit on charter schools, giving supporters a victory they've craved for more than a decade.

Legislators said the measure is likely to become law because Gov. Bev Perdue does not oppose it.

Allowing more than 100 of the independent public schools has been an issue pushed mostly by Republicans. Legislative Democrats, in the minority this year, said they were willing to add more.

In a few years, the state may have many more of the independent, tax-supported schools. The state's best charters have waiting lists, and charter supporters argued that parents unhappy with traditional public schools are clamoring for more choices.

Even with the cap eliminated, charter school organizers will still need to win approval from the State Board of Education, and schools must meet performance standards to stay open.

The charter bill that popped up Thursday was considerably different from earlier versions that passed the House and Senate. The earlier attempts were loaded with extras wanted by charter advocates or with provisions that attempted to meet demands of school districts and education associations. But they failed to win significant support from House Democrats, something the bill's backers said they wanted.

Getting support for thesimpler, stripped-down compromise is a significant victory, said Sen. Richard Stevens, a Cary Republican who shepherded the measure through the legislature. The bill eliminates the 100-charter limit, he said, when a year ago, charter advocates could not get a law adding six new schools.

"I consider that a tremendous move forward," Stevens said.

Senate vote unanimous

The Senate passed the bill unanimously without debate. The House passed it 108-5.

House Democrats, most of whom rejected the earlier charter proposals, said they could go along with a bill that does little more than erase the cap and allow charters quicker enrollment growth.

Rep. Marvin Lucas, a Cumberland County Democrat who tore up a copy of an earlier version to dramatize how much he disliked it, urged support for the compromise.

House Minority Leader Joe Hackney said he was relieved to see the streamlined proposal emerge.

Eliminating the cap is a big change, said Hackney, but the decisions on charters will be left to the State Board of Education, a move he likes.

"For many on our side, this bill comes as a relief," he said.

Legislators and charter advocates said they expected Perdue to accept the changes. Her spokeswoman, Chrissy Pearson, said the final version "is certainly closer to the kind of compromise she was looking for," but couldn't say what Perdue would do.

Bill Harrison, chairman of the State Board of Education, and June Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction, issued a statement saying they liked the bill.

"We applaud the General Assembly for approving legislation to support the growth of quality charter schools in North Carolina," they said.

No one with a stake in the issue got everything that was wanted out of the bill. Charter advocates were pushing for an independent charter commission to approve new schools and wanted charters to get a share of lottery revenue and county funds to pay for buildings. Both those provisions are gone. The bill makes it clear when the State Board of Education can revoke a charter for inadequate performance.

The N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. School Boards Association wanted to insert requirements for the schools to provide transportation and meals for low-income students, contending that poor students are essentially barred from attending some of state's best charters because they cannot get there or afford to bring food. Those requirements fell off, too.

Eddie Goodall, president of the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said he was disappointed with the result. The alliance thought the independent charter commission and money for buildings were essential, he said.

"We obviously fell way short," said Goodall.

NCAE satisfied

NCAE executive director Scott Anderson said the organization was satisfied with the result.

"The key is to make sure these schools are not becoming places where they're creaming the top off," he said.

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said he was pleased a workable compromise emerged after long weeks when no one was talking about charters.

Allison liked the bill the Senate approved earlier this year. But on Thursday, he said was happy with the simpler proposal. "It lays the groundwork for more working together as we utilize public charter schools for more of our folks across the state," he said.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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