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State Board of Education fights to retain oversight of charter schools

From left to right, Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, Board chair Eric Davis and vice chair Alan Duncan sit at the head of the table at the September 7, 2023 meeting of the State Board of Education.
Liz Schlemmer
/
WUNC
From left to right, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, Board chair Eric Davis and vice chair Alan Duncan sit at the head of the table at the September 2023 meeting of the State Board of Education.

Members of the State Board of Education approved a policy today that says the board will retain its right to approve funding for charter schools.

The new policy was a direct reaction to a law, passed in August after a veto override, that took authority away from the State Board of Education to decide when to open and close charter schools.

The law restructured the former Charter School Advisory Board into the Charter Schools Review Board and gave the renamed board more authority over those decisions.

The State Board of Education’s 8-to-3 vote on Thursday came after a spirited debate. Republicans Dale Folwell, Olivia Oxendine and Mark Robinson voted against it.

Robinson, a Republican running for governor, serves on the State Board of Education in his role as lieutenant governor. He said it was inexcusable that the board only shared the policy with him and the state superintendent within days of voting on it.

“It smacks of political maneuvering is what it smacks of. It's ridiculous,” Robinson said. “This is a serious policy change.”

Robinson’s wife serves on the board of American Leadership Academy-Monroe, a charter school in Union County that applied for and was denied a charter in January.

Board members who supported this policy say this power is in line with the North Carolina constitution. The policy references a section of the constitution that directs the State Board of Education to “supervise and administer the free public school system and the education funds provided for its support.”

“I think this seeks to reconcile the statutory language [of the new law] and the constitution,” said the board’s vice chair Alan Duncan, a Democrat.

Board member Olivia Oxendine wanted another 30 days to consider the proposal before voting on it, saying the policy seemed “premature” and “out of the spirit of the law.”

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, a Republican, said her administration was informed of the board’s proposed policy just one week before it would be voted on.

“Right now, this policy is so vague that for any reason, this board could deny funding,” Truitt said.

Truitt is a non-voting member of the State Board.

“Y'all are going to listen to what I'm saying, you’ll listen to what Ms. Oxendine is saying, you're going to listen to what the superintendent is saying, and you're going to move forward, and you're going to do what you want,” Robinson said. “But I can assure you, this will not go unnoticed.”

Board chair Eric Davis, registered as an unaffiliated voter but originally appointed by then-Republican Governor Pat McCrory, defended the proposal.

“The reason why I firmly, as a member of this board, believe the board should continue to focus on our financial accountability stems from the truth that over the last few years, seven charter schools have closed, at least five of them with questionable financial situations, which are currently being reviewed by federal officials,” Davis said.

He and Duncan have already begun conversations with the new Charter Schools Review Board, Davis said.

“Because the review board plans to start moving forward next week on applications, it's important for us to get this minimum set of policy, which in short, says, ‘Review board, when you approve an application or renewal or something that requires funding, come talk to us about it.’ It's as simple as that,” Davis said.

Executive director of the North Carolina Coalition of Charter Schools Lindalyn Kakadelis said she thinks the policy will curb the number of new charter schools because it will make the process of opening a school too burdensome.

Under the new policy, a school might be approved to open by the review board and then denied funding by the state board of education a full year later when it’s ready to open, Kakadelis said.

“I think we’re gonna get fewer applicants because if we’re going to decouple funding from approval that’s just more bureaucracy,” Kakadelis said. “The first thing that comes to my mind is that we’re going to have fewer people who want to put a charter school in North Carolina.”

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org