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Charter advocates reeling after low number of new charter schools approved for 2017

Days after the State Board of Education voted last week to reject five of the Charter School Advisory Board’s 13 recommendations for new charter schools seeking to open in 2017, members of the charter oversight board convening in Raleigh on Tuesday expressed shock and dismay about what they perceived as disrespect by the State Board toward their expertise and protocols for determining who should be allowed to operate a charter school in North Carolina.

“What are the skill sets on the State Board of Education with respect to knowledge about charter schools, that they get off not deferring to their [charter school] advisory board?” questioned CSAB member Alan Hawkes.

“Where do they have the temerity to turn down our recommendations,” added Hawkes, noting that members of the State Board did not undergo the rigorous application review process in which he and his colleagues took part.

Intending to open in the fall of 2017, 28 charter school applications came to the state’s Office of Charter Schools for consideration by the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB), an oversight panel comprising legislative and gubernatorial appointees that reviews applicants and makes recommendations to the State Board of Education for their final assessment and approval or denial.

During the months-long review of the 2017 applicants, members of the CSAB frequently found themselves at odds with one another over the merits of a school’s application. Final votes for many charter applications reflected those divisions, but seven applications still eked by with a majority of yeses by members of the CSAB and were ultimately recommended to the State Board of Education, along with six other schools that were unanimously recommended.

But of those seven applicants that were not unanimously approved by the CSAB, the State Board of Education chose to say yes to only two charters for a 2017 opening — which came as a surprise to CSAB chair Alex Quigley, who said he thought for sure all of the CSAB’s recommendations would have been given the go ahead.

“It is different than how the State Board has handled our recommendations in the past,” Quigley said. One CSAB member was under the impression that the State Board changed a policy when deciding to veto CSAB’s recommendations — but staff clarified that the final say has always been up to the State Board of Education and, in fact, they have vetoed CSAB’s recommendations other times during the past 20 years of charter school operations.

Quigley pointed to the recent spate of charter school closures in North Carolina as one reason why the State Board of Education was likely more risk-averse than in the past few years when reviewing new charter school hopefuls.

“Kinston, Entrepreneur, Dynamic, PACE, StudentFirst…Kennedy, Crossroads, and I think the recent issue with Thunderbird…I think that [the State Board of Education] made a decision that they felt was safe, I guess,” said Quigley.

“It’s always a risk,” said Quigley, adding that that risk is part of the entrepreneurial nature of the charter school sector. “That’s part of the benefits of charter schools, that we are saying we are going to try something new and different.”

CSAB member Steven Walker, who also serves as general counsel to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, noted that the current charter oversight board hasn’t approved a charter that has failed — yet.

“That shows that we’ve done our job, and we’ve done a good job,” said Walker, who then put forward a resolution that lays out who sits on the current CSAB and what their qualifications are, with the hope of encouraging the public and the State Board of Education to trust — and give greater weight — to their decision-making process going forward.

Lee Teague, who heads up the charter advocacy group NC Public Charter Schools Association, was given the opportunity to address the charter advisory board Tuesday.

Teague’s group was concerned with two things in the wake of the State Board’s decision last week: that they appeared to break precedent when it comes to charter school approvals, and that they felt they could substitute their judgment with that of the CSAB.

“The precedent [was broken] that schools with a strong recommendation from this board would generally be approved [by the SBE] almost without exception,” said Teague. “And that the State Board would substitute their judgment with the clear majority of yours in such an arbitrary, offhanded fashion without any warning, without any independent research or inquiry…it really sends a shudder down my spine and the spine of many charter school leaders.”

“If [the State Board of Education] can do it to these charter applicants, then they can do it to any school that appears before them,” said Teague. “Has the State Board really turned against charters?”

Teague implored the CSAB to determine why the State Board of Education usurped their recommendations and also planned to ask for hearings for the charter applicants that were recommended but denied, citing that they were treated by the State Board in a “cavalier fashion.”

State Board of Education member Becky Taylor, who also serves as the lone State Board member who also sits on the Charter School Advisory Board, was not in attendance at today’s meeting.

Lindsay Wagner

Lindsay Wagner is a contract reporter for EducationNC focused on child nutrition.