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Senate Bill 247 sponsors talk about accountability and transparency for charters

Following his filing last week of a bill aimed at studying and, at least temporarily, capping the number of public charter schools, Senate minority leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, formally introduced his legislation and spoke about accountability and transparency yesterday.

Blue was joined by his co-sponsor on the bill, Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, and school board members from Wake and Durham Counties.

“I stand here today as a supporter, a strong supporter of public charter schools,” Blue said. “And as a supporter of governmental accountability. Particularly when it comes to education spending.”

Blue stressed the scarcity of funding for education, saying that taxpayers should understand where their tax dollars are going.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure that every single public dollar that we spend, whether in education or elsewhere is spent wisely,” he said. “Taxpayers expect it, students deserve it. That’s what Senate Bill 247 does — it calls for a recess on new charter schools while a joint committee studies the impact on local districts and on local school performance. That’s accountability.

“We want traditional public schools and our charter schools to succeed. We don’t want to pit one against the other. We think there’s a need for both. We don’t want to see some students succeeding, though, at the expense of others. We want all students to succeed,” said Blue.

After the press conference, the office of Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, issued a release sharply rebuking SB 247 and calling its Democrat supporters anti-school choice. The release charged the bill’s sponsors with attempting to “kneecap growth.”

“This is a clear attempt to strip parents of their ability to decide on the education that’s best for their children,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, who is co-chair of the Senate Education Committee. “The anti-choice movement apparently hoped charter schools would fail, but then saw parents sending their kids to charter schools in droves. Instead of embracing a parent’s right to choose the best education, their answer is to make it illegal for charter schools to grow.”

Blue’s bill proposes a 10-member committee comprised of six Democrats and four Republicans. As explained by Chaudhuri, the committee would study the performance of the various public charter schools — both academic and financial — and recommend standards for accountability and transparency. He mentioned financial audits, compliance with open meeting laws, and public availability of charter school board meeting minutes as examples.

“And that recommendation is not unreasonable given that charter schools are funded with public dollars and therefore they should be held publicly accountable,” Chaudhuri said. “This bill also requests the legislative study committee to study the impact charter schools have on local school districts, including the extent that charter schools successfully serve the underserved population and students with special needs. The bottom line is we need to take a break to review what’s working and what doesn’t work, and then decide on how to move forward.”

In an interview, Helen Nance, director of Gray Stone Day School in Stanley, pushed back on the implication that charter schools are not accountable and transparent, and emphasized its importance to rural areas.

“Charter schools have a great deal of accountability already,” said Nance, who noted that her school’s board meetings are open and that meeting minutes are available upon request. “We are reviewed constantly by the Office of Charter Schools and any federal funds that are used are audited just like local school systems. So I think if somebody wants to look, the information is already there.”

Christine Kushner, a school board member from Wake County, and Natalie Beyer, a school board member from Durham County, echoed the senators’ comments during the press conference — and spoke specifically about concerns over the growth of public charter schools in their districts. According to them, Wake County spends $36 million of local money on public charter schools. In Durham County, it’s $24 million.

“And that figure has been escalating,” Kushner said. “Last year’s increase alone was $5 million for a single year. And there was no clear oversight for the spending of those local funds. That’s why I think we need a pause on charter school expansion, so we can improve the oversight for these taxpayer dollars. I expect responsible spending for public school, for the millions of dollars that we received from Wake County taxpayers.”

While Beyer shared funding concerns, even citing a Duke University study that estimated a reduction in spending at traditional public schools in Durham from $700 to $500 per pupil because of public charters, she had social concerns, as well.

Beyer spent the previous night at the movie screening for “The Best of Enemies,” a story about the integration of Durham Public Schools. Beyer was struck by how Durham “merged our separate but unequal city and county school systems.”

On Wednesday, she appeared alongside Blue and Chaudhuri to talk about similar challenges she believes Durham now sees with public charter schools.

“Sadly, North Carolina’s charter school legislation is recreating a new separate and unequal system in our community,” she said. “… Charter schools in Durham do not reflect the diversity of our community. In Durham, nearly two-thirds of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch, but in Durham charter schools, that figure is less than 20 percent.

“One of my primary concerns is growing racial isolation in charter schools in North Carolina. Most charter schools do not reflect the diverse racial makeup of our community. Most charter schools in Durham either serve majority black students and a few are predominantly comprised of White and Asian students. Across the state, Latino students are grossly underrepresented in charter schools,” she said. 

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria is the equity and learning differences reporter at EducationNC who is passionate about shining light on under-reported issues.