While praising local charter schools as a “model” for the state, three area Democratics with backgrounds in education slammed legislation on Friday that would replace current charter-school law with a very different structure. The bill, known as “No Cap on Number of Charter Schools” (SB 8), passed in the N.C. Senate this week and will be taken up in the House on Tuesday, March 8.
At a press conference held today, March 4, Reps. Susan Fisher and Patsy Keever (both of Buncombe County) and Ray Rapp (Madison County) called SB 8 “a travesty” for public education in the state. Their repeated rationale was not the removal of the 100-unit cap on charter schools statewide, but the changes in financing and accountability that are contained in the new legislation.
Fisher, who served eight years on the Buncombe County Board of Education, said bill provisions would remove the minimum-enrollment requirement (now set at 65) to start a charter school, require no licensure for teachers, and take funding away from traditional public schools that is now allocated for required services such as school lunch programs — even though the charter schools do not provide such a program. Removal of the enrollment threshold, Fisher said several times, would mean that a home-school family could establish a single-unit charter school. “As we see it, (the bill) is a backdoor voucher system,” Fisher declared.
Rapp, a retired dean at Mars Hill College, spoke to the broader financial issues of the bill at a time when sweeping cuts have been set for public education’s budget. And he stated that the alternative bill the trio plan to introduce next week would “remove the cap (on numbers of charter schools) but keep accountability measures in place.”
The House bill grew out of attempts to write amendments to SB 8 that would address the accountability issues, Rapp said. Overwhelmed by the number of amendments they saw as necessary, Rapp and his House colleagues concluded “We have got to go back and start over.” If SB 8 should pass in the House as it now stands, he said, “We hope the governor will veto it.” That would mean the new House version could be given full consideration.
“This is my first term,” said Keever, who taught school in Buncombe County for 25 years. “I went to Raleigh to work with both parties, but I wanted to work on education. Charter schools are doing a great job in Buncombe County. We’re proud of those schools. I went down ready to raise the cap on charter schools, but Senate Bill 8 just goes overboard.”
“Charter schools were started to find out what good things, what flexibility we can have in our public schools. What I have found in charter schools is sense of community. I wish we could legislate that,” Keever added.
Several local school officials joining the three legislators in addressing the issues of SB 8. Al Whitesides, a member of the Asheville City Schools Board of Education, noted that “I have the fifth generation of my family now in the Asheville city schools, so for me there’s a lot at stake.”
“I’m a product of the 60s,” Whitesides continued. “I saw us fight for equal schools. I came through separate-but-equal, and believe me, they were not equal. It seems to me we’re retrogressing.” Whitesides said that the Asheville school board will consider a resolution on Monday that is similar to one passed this week by the Buncombe County Board of Education, calling for a series of modifications to SB 8. That resolution included such changes as: adding a mechanism to account for funds not appropriate for sharing with charter schools; reinstating a reasonable number of minimum students necessary to form a charter school; reconsideration of capital funding provisions; and creating a bill that is “fair and equitable” to all N.C. students, which would avoid future litigation at the expense of students.
The BCBOE’s chairman, Steven Sizemore, spoke to the “devastating financial impact” of SB 8, pointing out that it would potentially entitle charter schools to a portion of the money raised by a traditional public school’s PTA or booster clubs, by its rental of facilities, or funds paid for out-of-school and summer programs. “These would flow to charter schools,” he commented, which are not required to provide the same programs or the same oversight and regulation.
“Our job is to educate our children,” said the Chuck Francis, chairman of the Haywood County School Board and incoming president of the 115-member N.C. School Boards Association. Francis spoke not only of SB 8 but of what he saw as “vengeful acts” towards education and children’s futures in general. “We’re not going to throw our K-12 education under the bus.”
According to Fisher, SB 8 will be heard in the House Education Committee on Tuesday. “We don’t know at this point whether we will be invited to speak – (and are) not certain whether we will vote that day.” The legislators plan to unveil their new bill at a Raleigh press conference Monday afternoon and introduce it in the House on Tuesday. At present they have three more sponsors working with them on the draft: Democrats Rick Glazier and Marvin Lucas of Cumberland County and Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg.
Contacted by phone, BC’s Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt, told the Xpress that he had not yet fully studied the bill because it was just being forwarded to the House, but that he did look to Keever in particular on education matters — even if they don’t always agree. “All children deserve access to fair and appropriate public education,” he added.
SB 8’s primary sponsor, Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville, whose district includes part of Buncombe County, could not be reached today for comment.
Today’s meeting was held in the board room of Asheville Public Schools Board of Education, and was attended by members of the public as well as the press, including several parents of children attending charter schools in the area as well as other school board members.
“I saw a sign that said ‘Equal money for charter schools,’” Whitesides commented. He would agree, he said, but would add, “Equal rules for all of us.”
photos by Jonathan Welch, story by Nelda Holder, contributing editor