Parents could be kept in the dark about North Carolina charter schools’ finances and teachers’ performance if state lawmakers don’t make a stand for transparency and public accountability.
In a signal that the General Assembly may consider letting charter schools wiggle out of the disclosure requirements in place at traditional public schools, lawmakers in a Senate education committee took an open-government provision out of a charter reform bill last week. The bill would have decreed that charter schools are inherently subject to the state’s public records and open meetings laws.
Parents and members of the public can review charter school records and attend board meetings now as a matter of State Board of Education policy. The law that authorizes charter schools in North Carolina’s general statutes, however, is silent on whether the public’s open-government protections apply.
Republican state Sens. Jerry Tillman and Bill Cook introduced a charter school bill that would leave no room for debate or ambiguity. Charter schools, which receive public funding but are run by private nonprofit boards, would be subject to state sunshine laws. But the public transparency provision mysteriously disappeared in a substitute bill advanced Thursday in the education committee Tillman chairs.
A retired school administrator representing Moore and Randolph counties, Tillman has some explaining to do. He had it right the first time — schools that operate with public money should open their books to the public. As committee chairman, he could have blocked the substitute bill if he found it disagreeable. We urge him to restore the original open-government provision without delay.
Charter schools are springing up throughout the Tar Heel State after lawmakers in 2011 lifted the cap limiting the number of charters to 100. As of Jan. 28, North Carolina had 127 charter schools in operation and dozens more in the works awaiting state approval.
Supporters say the schools provide families with alternatives to the state’s traditional public education system. Classroom seats are filled by lottery, and an application process tends to glean more studious students from households with more involved parents.
The governing bodies’ nonprofit status makes them more nimble, and charter schools are exempt from some of the rules county school systems must follow, lessening the regulatory burden and fostering innovation.
Charters remain controversial, however, as they receive state funds for each pupil enrolled and are not required to return the money to traditional public schools when a pupil withdraws or is kicked out. Some superintendents say charters take the money and dump students with learning difficulties or behavior problems back into county school systems.
If state lawmakers really want to tinker with the charter school statutes in the 2014 short session, that seems to us like an oversight they ought to correct. Money earmarked for an individual student’s education should follow that student. It’s a simple matter of fairness and common sense.
As for public accountability, the substitute bill as currently written wouldn’t exempt charters from open meetings and public records laws. Instead, it would let stand the present State Board of Education policy that requires charter schools to be transparent. That’s too tenuous an arrangement for us, as the state board could decide on its own to block public access.
Tillman’s bill also leaves the door open for lawmakers to make charter schools exempt from disclosure laws in the future. With General Assembly leaders who have proven hostile to open government in the 2013-14 session, charter-school parents have reason to worry.
Charters may be a different breed of public school, but they’re still the same animal. Taxpayers provide the bulk of their budgets. State law must make perfectly clear that we have the right to know what’s going on in each and every school our money supports.