State Politics

Should charter school enrollment be a corporate employee perk?

Students could gain admission to charter schools based on where their parents work or where they live under legislation that would make significant changes in the ways the schools fill their classrooms.

The state House is considering a collection of bills that would change who can start a charter and how quickly the schools can grow. Corporations would be able to reserve spaces in schools for their employees’ children, and two towns would be able to set up charter schools for their residents. Under current law, charters are open to any student in the state, although schools can give preference to siblings and school employees’ children.

“This is loosening the restrictions on how charters operate and what they’re allowed to do,” Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat, said of the collection of bills the House Education Committee approved Monday in divided votes.

Under one bill, up to half a charter school’s seats could be reserved for children whose parents work for companies that donate land, buildings or equipment to the school. Employees of those companies would also be able to join the charter school’s board of directors.

Rep. John R. Bradford III, a Mecklenburg Republican, framed the bill as an economic development tool that could help attract companies to rural counties. Companies would be able to offer classroom seats as employee perks, Bradford said, equating charter enrollment to companies paying for employee meals.

“This creates a vehicle where a company can create an employee benefit,” he said.

Meyer objected, saying the provision would have taxpayer money going to company schools.

“This moves closer to privatization than North Carolina has ever allowed before,” he said.

Another bill would allow charter enrollment to grow 30 percent a year without approval from the State Board of Education. Charters are now limited to 20 percent annual growth without board approval. Some Democrats objected on the grounds that it could fuel growth in schools that aren’t good. Allowing charters with bad records to expand would not be fair to taxpayers, parents or students, said Rep. Bobbie Richardson, a Louisburg Democrat.

Attendance at charter schools has doubled since 2011, when the legislature allowed the number of schools in the state to exceed 100. Other laws have erased the need for charters to get State Board of Education approval before they add grades and students.

In the first month of this school year, charters enrolled nearly 92,000 students, compared to about 45,000 five years ago.

The state now has 167 charters, two of them online schools.

Under another bill, the Mecklenburg County towns of Matthews and Mint Hill would be allowed to apply for and run charter schools, and give children in those towns preference in enrollment. Under current law, nonprofit corporations apply for charters and enrollment is not limited by town or county.

“The idea is to put some schools and additional choices within the towns’ control,” said Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican and the bill’s sponsor.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner