Under the Dome

NC Senate transfers control of Office of Charter Schools

The Senate passed a bill Thursday stripping the state Department of Public Instruction of oversight of charter schools after Republican lawmakers charged that education officials are hostile to those non-traditional public schools.

The revised version of House Bill 334 would transfer authority and funding for the Office of Charter Schools to the State Board of Education. The 32-14 vote largely went along party lines with Republicans saying charter schools need to be overseen by people who support them while Democrats said no change was needed in the system.

Charter schools are taxpayer funded schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. The state has expanded the number of charter schools since a 100-school cap was lifted in 2011, but the expansion hasn’t been fast enough for some advocates.

During Thursday’s floor debate, Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Randolph County Republican, contended that a change is needed in oversight because he says DPI views charter schools as a threat to traditional public schools. Tillman said he had examples of DPI obstructing charter schools but that he didn’t want to publicly discuss them.

“From the outset they have not liked charter schools,” Tillman said.

But Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, said the charter school office under DPI control has done a good job of rejecting unqualified applicants and overseeing the 146 charters that were open this past school year.

“I see no reason to move this office from DPI to the State Board,” Stein said.

Republican senators said separating charter schools from DPI would spark healthy competition between charters and traditional public schools. But Democratic senators said oversight of North Carolina’s public schools shouldn’t be split.

The bill also changes the composition of the Charter Schools Advisory Board to make its membership more supportive of charter schools. The advisory board makes recommendations to the State Board of Education.

The bill strips the governor’s office of the power to appoint the chair of the advisory board.

The bill would also turn the advisory board seat now held by a State Board of Education member into a non-voting position. Instead, the State Board would be required to pick a person who to serve as a voting member on the advisory board who is not on the State Board and “who is a charter school advocate in North Carolina.”

Sen. Dan Soucek, a Watauga County Republican, compared the advisory board changes to wanting movie lovers to be movie critics. Soucek said they want people who love charter schools to serve on the advisory board.

Soucek said charter advocates are the best people for determining which charter applicants can succeed.

The Senate rewrote a bill originally approved by the House that allows charter schools to charge fees for extracurricular activities. The bill now goes back to the House to see if it will concur with the changes.