NC charter schools are public, and their salaries must be, too

April 17, 2014 

William Cobey, Gov. Pat McCrory’s chairman of the State Board of Education, gets some considerable credit for cutting through legal confusion with regard to a fuss over charter schools.

The state Department of Public Instruction announced in March that charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not have to reveal salaries.

On its face, it was a ridiculous notion.

Authorized by the state nearly 20 years ago, charters have gradually grown in popularity, though their successes have been uneven. Nevertheless, Republicans are charter advocates and have lifted the cap on the number of allowable charters and at times even proposed having them report to a board separate from the State Board of Education. That hasn’t gone through, fortunately.

Cobey, a veteran Republican politician and former congressman, is a reliable conservative, and he showed sound judgment on the salary issue. Some charters had resisted revealing salaries. Then DPI said they didn’t have to, which strengthened that resistance.

The charter concept

Now DPI has changed course. And Cobey cut to the heart of the argument in saying, “Public charter schools should disclose how they spend all tax dollars, including salaries paid.”

State Superintendent June Atkinson added, “Charter schools are set up and organized as public schools. Therefore, I believe salaries are to be open to the public for review.”

The concept behind charter schools, and the reason the number was initially limited, was that they would retain a certain independence from some of the rules and regulations of public schools.

Charter schools were touted as providing “laboratories” where teaching methods for math, for example, that might be outside the conventional plans of public schools could be tested and developed and perhaps adopted by public schools. The charters, it was argued, offer an opportunity to help conventional public schools.

That wasn’t how skeptics saw it. Charters, they said, were funded by the public and thus drained money from regular school systems. And they also questioned the risks in charters experimenting. If the experiments didn’t work, would the students in those schools fall behind?

The questions were legitimate, just as charter advocates had a valid point about the value of the freedom to try different ways of educating young people.

Keys to success

But when some charters began to be skewed in terms of racial balance, and when some charters performed considerably better than others, the state rightly took a more detailed look at them. Republicans, however, didn’t worry about some of the questions about charters when they took control of the legislature. They favored opening as many charters as possible, no matter how much money was drained from regular public schools.

The key to ensuring that charters are successful – and that parents and administrators of those schools don’t start thinking of them as private – is oversight and transparency. Charters run with public money. Teachers are paid with public money. These are public schools, with many of the rights of public schools and all of the obligations to be open in their dealings with the public.

One person who appears to be resisting the state board’s view is, of all people, former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot. A lawyer, he represents charters and says the schools will release salaries but attach names only to the highest-paid staff. Let the state board make it clear to him and others: All the salaries and all the names are public. Period.

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