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New law could keep bad charters in business

When members of the NC Charter School Advisory Board convened in Raleigh for their June meeting this week, they engaged in an impromptu discussion on the impact of House Bill 242, an omnibus charter school bill moving through the General Assembly that could affect how the state’s 150+ charter schools are held accountable for providing high quality education.

CSAB member Alan Hawkes expressed concern that the bill could make it harder for the state to revoke the charters of schools that are not doing a good job of educating students.

“Revoking the charter seems to be becoming increasingly more problematic,” said Hawkes. “There has to be some way to let applicants know that if they don’t live up to the charter and they don’t perform academically, they’re subject to revocation of the charter.”

Since the cap on charter schools was lifted in 2011, the state has increased its rate of approval for charters that can operate in North Carolina. But also since 2011, twelve charter schools have been ordered by the state to close for poor academic performance or financial difficulties—and five of the schools that have closed were in their first year of operation.

Some charter schools facing closure have turned to the courts to challenge the state’s decision to shut them down, incurring considerable expense on the taxpayer’s dime. And as of January 2016, there were 26 charter schools on a state watch list, most of which were experiencing either financial or academic difficulties.

When struggling charter schools come before the charter school advisory board to discuss their progress, board members often express confusion about their authority when considering revocation of a charter.

“I think the achilles heel,” added Hawkes, “is our apparent inability to not renew the charter for schools that are in substantive financial and academic disarray…it doesn’t help public school choice and it supplies a lot of ammunition to those who oppose public school choice when the bad actors can’t be moved off the field.”

Board chair and longtime charter school operator Alex Quigley shared Hawkes’ concerns and worried that the bill would make the already difficult and sometimes confusing process of shuttering a poor performing charter school even harder.

“It [the language in H242] makes it really difficult to nonrenew a charter. It makes it even harder to not renew a school that is failing kids.”

The language at issue is found in section 1.7(b), subsection (b1), which removes the State Board of Education’s ability to terminate a school’s charter solely on the basis of their academic low-performing status.

While the state could still shutter a school for a number of other reasons, language like this could conceivably weaken the state’s ability to hold charter schools accountable for producing high academic outcomes, according to the Office of Charter School’s interim director, Adam Levinson.

“HB 242 does appear to limit the State Board of Education’s authority when it comes to making decisions about the continued operation of charter schools,” said Levinson.

CSAB member Steven Walker, who also serves as general counsel and policy director for Lt. Governor Dan Forest, took a different tack in interpreting the legislation, however. He said that even with this legislation there would still remain language in the law that would allow the state to close a school because they failed to meet the standards they set forth in their charter—which would typically include standards for high academic performance.

The bill also jettisons the old accountability criteria for evaluating charter schools’ academic performance, relying instead on what the state now uses for identifying the low-performing academic status of traditional public schools. The A-F school grading mechanism is part of that formula.

The Senate passed the bill earlier this week, and it’s now with the House for a concurrence vote.

Improving the vetting process

CSAB members also discussed how they might improve the vetting of charter school applicants with the hope of making the process less subjective (one member previously said it’s essentially become a popularity contest) and more reliant on the data found in evaluation rubrics filled out by external evaluators.

The process for evaluating charter school hopefuls is changing once again this fall, reverting back to a system similar to one used in the past where subcommittees first vet applicants before they are moved on to a presentation before the entire charter school advisory board.

CSAB members discussed how important it was to put processes in place that avoided a past scenario where every board member was required to read each charter school application thoroughly.

“Let’s just not go back to when we spent 60 hours each at home reading these [applications],” said CSAB member and State Board of Education member Becky Taylor.

Board member Joe Maimone expressed similar concerns, but also noted that the state is giving charter operators millions of dollars of state money.

“Is it realistic that we’re going to give be able to give each application the kind of scrutiny that it deserves?”

No big changes were made to the evaluation rubric for charter school applicants, just small tweaks that will hopefully streamline the process for both external evaluators and CSAB members.

But board member Taylor did suggest that CSAB members trust that when external evaluators rated certain sections of a charter application as positive, then it’s a section they don’t need to explore deeply, instead reserving their time only for sections that raised red flags.

Thunderbird Prep facing closure

The charter school advisory board became angered by Cornelius-based Thunderbird Preparatory Academy’s failure to send anyone to represent the school as members discussed whether or not to revoke its charter.

The school, which struggled even at its opening in 2014 thanks to facility problems, was supposed to answer to serious questions about its significant debt, faculty turnover, parent complaints and “potential health and safety issues related to black mold and rodent droppings,” according to a story by the Charlotte Observer.

[Click here for a detailed account of Thunderbird’s problems, and click here to read why school leaders say they missed the meeting.]

According to the Office of Charter School’s website, an application to open Thunderbird prep was denied for two years in a row before the state finally gave it the thumbs up for a Fall 2014 opening. External evaluators of the school’s 2013 application suggested that it copied verbatim language from the application of another charter school, raising a red flag.

The charter school advisory board voted unanimously to recommend revoking the school’s charter. The State Board of Education will have the final say on the matter at its July meeting.

Lindsay Wagner

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