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Updates from the November charter school advisory board meeting

Going forward, I’ll be bringing you monthly updates on what takes place at charter school advisory meetings because the Fletcher Foundation believes we all have a stake in making sure our education system is transparent and accountable. The charter school advisory board, also referred to as ‘CSAB’ by a small number of people who actually pay consistent attention to its movements make very important decisions affecting the charter school landscape that are witnessed by too few people and not reported out to the general public on a consistent basis in a way that’s easy to digest.

The CSAB is a board that in many ways looks and feels like the State Board of Education. Its members are political appointees that for the most part have vested interests in ensuring charter schools succeed and grow in number. Board members have considerable influence in who gets to set up shop in North Carolina, how these public charter schools are governed and the degree to which they are held accountable for students’ academic success and proper stewardship of taxpayer funds.

So with all of that said, here are some key takeaways from the November 2015 CSAB meeting. I don’t hit on every issue that was taken up; these are just some of the more compelling and newsworthy topics of the meeting.

Charter school teacher of the year frustrated with division in charter advocacy leadership

NC Charter School Teacher of the Year Elizabeth Padgett photo credit: NC Office of Charter Schools

Elizabeth Padgett teaches at Lake Norman Charter school and is the Charter School Teacher of the Year for 2015-16. In her presentation to the CSAB Monday, she was quick to make a strong statement about how unhappy she is with the infighting taking place between the state’s two charter school advocacy groups.

“Having a division like that doesn’t make us as strong,” said Padgett. “And we need to be strong out there in front of other traditional public schools.”

Nearly four years ago, former state Sen. Eddie Goodall split away from the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools to create his own advocacy group, rebuking other board members of that original group for having multiple conflicts of interest. Since that time, the two groups have been at odds with one another, and last year Goodall filed an ethics complaint against two Alliance board members who were at the time also serving on the CSAB.

Padgett said one united organization could be better positioned to fight for more professional development for charter school teachers and collaborate on governance issues.

Padgett also said she would like to see all charter schools be required to use the Standard Course of Study in the classroom, but have flexibility in teaching methods that align with the SCOS—a position that didn’t sit well with CSAB member Joe Maimone, who heads up a classical studies charter school in Mooresboro.

“I don’t know if I’d want my teacher of the year for charter schools going around saying that only the Standard Course of Study should be the way things are done,” said Maimone.

Padgett’s final words of advice to members of the CSAB?

“Be selective. Be very selective, hold people accountable, [and create] high standards to become a charter school,” said Padgett. “Because when you fail it puts a bad name on charters in general. And we don’t want our charters to fail, we want them to succeed.”

Efforts to change funding process for growing charter schools put on pause

NC Charter School Map 2015-16
credit: NC Office of Charter Schools

The number of students attending charter schools in North Carolina has more than tripled over the past ten years.

And since the General Assembly lifted the cap in 2011 on the number of charter schools that can operate in the state (previously 100), there’s been a net increase of 52 schools over the past three years alone according to DPI’s Alexis Schauss, who appears to be one of maybe two people in the state who understands the complexities of charter school finance. The size of these schools is also growing, with many charters serving 1,000 students or more. Ten years ago no charter school came close to that size.

Schauss highlighted these statistics to the CSAB to provide some context for a rather complicated explanation of how increasing numbers of public school students leaving their local public schools for charters can sometimes hamper the ability of school districts to adequately fund the traditional public school system.

It’s important, said Schauss, for charter schools to accurately project their growing enrollment figures instead of padding those numbers in the hopes of receiving a ‘cash advance’ from the state for students who may—but in some cases do not— end up coming through their doors.

Twenty-eight schools considerably overshot their enrollment projections in 2015, and that’s a drain on state resources, said Schauss. It takes months to recoup those funds and get them back in the hands of local public schools.

This discussion was part of a larger proposal to amend the policy for funding charter schools that are growing up to 20 percent to encourage more accurate payouts from the state. CSAB members decided to leave the current policy in tact for now because the proposed changes didn’t appear to really help matters.

HB 334 requires the CSAB to study the process for making funding allotments to charter schools, perhaps in a bid to protect the state when a charter school shutters during the school year and already received state funds—without providing educational services.

Legislation weakens power of external charter applicant reviewers

In the past, the Office of Charter Schools employed qualified external evaluators to take the first stab at reviewing charter school applications. Those individuals were also empowered to determine whether or not hopeful charter school operators got past the first hurdle and made it to an interview with CSAB members. If applications didn’t meet a defined sniff test, they got tossed.

HB 334 effectively changed external evaluators’ role—they are now trained to raise red flags contained in applications, but they can’t throw any applications out of the pile of ones to be considered. Now every charter applicant gets an interview—and external evaluators that reviewed their applications won’t be a part of the interview audience to answer questions.

This change was music to CSAB member Alan Hawkes’ ears, who apparently was so displeased with a former evaluator’s efforts to cull applications from those being considered that he had that person banned from participating in this process again.

Charter schools looking to re-up for another ten years

CSAB members considered eleven charter schools that are asking for ten year renewals of their charters.

Generally speaking, schools that were underperforming or not in financial compliance were moved to bring in for an interview next month to explain their plans for improvement.

Schools that had good academic track records and were financially sound were recommended for renewal. This includes KIPP Gaston, which has high academic outcomes but does not meet the statutory requirement that at least 50% of its teachers are certified. KIPP got a pass on that one from the CSAB.

Interestingly, schools that serve minority student populations were more likely to be on thin ice when it comes to renewal, while the majority of schools serving white student populations seemed likely to get another ten years.

Here’s the breakdown of the schools whose charters were considered for renewal:

Kennedy Public Charter School (Charlotte)

91.5 % black, 5.9% Hispanic, 0.5% white
Underperforming academically as compared with LEA
Invited for an interview

Crossroads Charter High School (Charlotte) 
95.6 % black, 1.6% Hispanic, 1.1% white
On financial probation
Invited for an interview

Queens Grant Community School (Charlotte)
20.9% black, 7.4% Hispanic, 67.3% white
Financially insolvent, high school recently severed ties with large EMO
Invited for an interview

Haliwa-Saponi Tribal School (Hollister)
16.7% black, 1% Hispanic, 2.1% white, 75.5% American Indian
Concerns over student performance and mission alignment
Invited for an interview

The New Dimensions (Morganton)
5% black, 9.6% Hispanic, 82% white
Noncompliant re: exceptional children requirements
Invited for an interview

KIPP Gaston
77.4% black, 3.4% Hispanic, 15.7% white
On warning for failure to comply with statutory requirement that 50% of teachers are certified
Recommended for renewal

Hope Charter Leadership Academy (Raleigh)
91.1% black, 8.1% Hispanic, 0.8% white
Considerably underperforming on academics; on governance warning for failure to comply with statutory requirement that 50% of teachers are certified
Invited for interview

Roxboro Community School
9.9% black, 3.3% Hispanic, 83.2% white
Exceeds academic performance benchmarks; CSAB flagged it’s A+ school report card grade.
Recommended for renewal

Pine Lake Preparatory Academy (Mooresville)
2.4% black, 2.8% Hispanic, 88% white
*asked for early renewal to make it easier to embark on a new capital campaign.
Exceeds academic performance benchmarks; CSAB flagged it’s A+ school report card grade.
Recommended for renewal

Clover Garden School (Burlington)
4% black, 4% Hispanic, 89% white
Exceeding academic benchmarks
Recommended for renewal

Crosscreek Charter School (Louisburg)
14.6% black, 4.3% Hispanic, 77.3% white
Exceeding academic benchmarks
Recommended for renewal

*UPDATE: Following the November 2015 CSAB meeting, school officials from KIPP Gaston submitted paperwork to the Office of Charter Schools indicating that they met the statutory requirement that 50 percent of their teachers are licensed, according to OCS staffer Deanna Townsend-Smith.

It’s important to note, however, that the CSAB made their decision to renew KIPP Gaston’s charter for ten years without having evidence that the school was in compliance with the law. At the time of the decision, KIPP Gaston was operating under a ‘governance warning,’ which is a designation that comes as a first step toward revocation of a school’s charter.

As an organization that provides financial support to charter schools—including KIPP Gaston—we care deeply that North Carolina’s public officials adhere to consistent and sound policies with regard to holding charter schools accountable and transparent. For that reason, we’ll be keeping a closer eye on how CSAB engages in this process and acts as an effective steward of taxpayer dollars and the education of our state’s children.

Lindsay Wagner

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