More than two dozen rejected charter-school applicants want a second chance, prompting a fight over how state education leaders should handle growth of these non-traditional public schools.
Last month, the state Office of Charter Schools rejected 27 of 69 applications to open charter schools for the 2014-15 school year. State educators said they were following the guidelines given to them when they rejected the schools. But charter school advocates say too many applications were rejected because of minor paperwork that was missing or for other reasons unrelated to the schools’ potential quality.
The Public Charter School Advisory Council, the group which suggested the guidelines, will discuss Monday whether to consider any of the rejected applicants. The council recommends to the State Board of Education which charter schools should be approved.
“We are receptive to charter schools, but we are receptive to quality,” said John Betterton, chairman of the council. “We want to make sure the schools that operate are quality schools that will be run by quality people.”
The controversy comes as key Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation that would create a new board to govern charter schools, in the process eliminating the Public Charter School Advisory Council and reducing the authority of the state Board of Education over those schools. The bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee last week.
A charter school is a publicly funded operation with more flexibility in its operations than traditional public schools. Some are run by private management companies.
Charter school expansion has been underway since the General Assembly lifted the 100-school cap in 2011.
About 50,000 students now attend 107 charters, with one school voluntarily agreeing to shut down at the end of the school year. They’ll be joined by 23 new schools that will open this fall.
The expansion comes as critics say the state is moving too fast without ensuring sufficient oversight.
“You either have to slow down the process to make sure the schools are being innovative, like they’re supposed to be, or stop expanding,” said Chris Hill, director of the N.C. Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.
In January, more than 150 applicants had submitted letters of intent to open in 2014.
Amid the record expansion, Joel Medley, director of the Office of Charter Schools, received in February suggestions from the advisory council on determining which applications would be considered incomplete. Only compete applications would be sent to the council for further review.
A total of 70 applications were received by March 1, with one group later withdrawing its request.
Medley’s staff determined 42 applications, including nine from the Triangle, were complete. The other 27 applicants were told they had not passed initial screening.
The rejection letters show reasons such as not submitting hard copies to go along with the electronic application, not having all board members sign documents, not including an organizational chart and reporting a budget deficit.
Rejected applicants began complaining, but state education officials initially rejected any reconsideration.
“With 42 applicants properly submitting their completed charter applications prior to the March 1, 2013, deadline, accepting incomplete applicants without the required components is inconsistent and unfair,” Medley wrote in a March 26 letter to charter school supporters.
One of the rejections was for a school that would have been managed by Baker Mitchell’s charter management company. Mitchell is also chairman of the board of the directors of the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools and a member of the advisory council.
“Some of them might have been legitimately excluded in a strict interpretation of the statute, but I think a fair number that were thrown out should be revisited,” he said.
Mitchell, who wasn’t at the February meeting where the guidelines were added, said the items go beyond what’s required in state law. He said that as long as an application meets the requirements in state law then the issue should be whether the applicant has the ability to operate the school and can do it in an educationally and economically sound manner.
Betterton, the council chairman, said that the state law couldn’t cover everything. But he said that some applications were rejected for reasons that might be considered minor enough to warrant a second look.
For instance, the only reason that four applications from Norman George of Raleigh, including three in the Triangle, were rejected was because they didn’t include a copy of the school academic calendar.
George said he explained in the applications that they planned to follow the calendar used by the school system in the county they’re located in. He said they couldn’t provide specific dates because those districts hadn’t yet adopted 2014-15 calendars.
“They interpreted things one way and if you didn’t do it like it they see it, you got bumped,” he said. “It should be judged on its merits instead of because of the reading of a bureaucrat.”
Medley and State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson say they’ll do whatever the council wants.
“We followed the rules given to us by the advisory council,” Atkinson said. “If they change the rules, we will follow them.”
Envision Science Academy passed the initial screening. Monica Cutno, its president and founder, said they took extra care to make sure the application was complete. But Cutno said the proposed Wake Forest area charter school wouldn’t mind if the 27 rejected applications got a second chance.
“I don’t see the other schools as competition,” she said. “I don’t feel Envision Science Academy would be slighted if the other applicants were reviewed and continued in the process.”