Rep. Tricia Cotham discusses House Bill 618 during a recent Senate education committee meeting. (Photo: Screenshot from committee meeting.)
A bill to create a new Charter School Review Board responsible for approving, reviewing and denying school charters wound its way through Senate committees this week, and is likely to soon land on Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk. Under House Bill 618, the new review board would assume many of the powers currently held by the State Board of Education (SBE).
Currently, charter applications, renewals and other oversight responsibilities are initially handled by the Charter School Advisory Board, which makes recommendations for approvals or denial to the state board. The state board would retain accountability, appellate, funding and rule-making responsibilities if HB 618 becomes law.
“This action will make the application process more efficient, more cost effective and much more streamlined for all stakeholders involved,” Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg County Republican, told the Senate education committee on Wednesday.
Cotham is a primary sponsor of HB 618.
Meanwhile, critics of the bill say the current process for charter school oversight is working.
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat noted, that of 140 charter school applications submitted since 2013, the state board has approved 90% of them and over the last five years, the state board approved 49 of 50 applications.
“What’s changed in the process to warrant this bill?” Chaudhuri asked during a Senate Rules and Operations committee meeting on Thursday.
Sen. Amy Galey, an Alamance County Republican, said the review board is a better structure for charter school oversight.
“This will release some of the burdens on the State Board of Education as well as be more well thought out,” Galey said.
SBE Chairman Eric Davis recently wrote a letter to lawmakers expressing concern about some of the Republican-backed bills introduced this legislative session, including HB 618.
He reminded them of the state board’s constitutional responsibility for all of North Carolina’s public schools.
“The SBE is uniquely positioned to weigh the issues for all NC student within charter request,” Davis wrote.
He said the current process “clearly shows that quality charter school proposals with the recommendation of CSAB and the background provided by DPI’s Office of Charter Schools, are receiving a fair review.”
Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat, said that to ensure fair review and to avoid appearances of conflicts of interests, the state board must retain authority to issue final charter approval.
Several members of the CSAB are charter school operators and sometimes must consider charter school applications from competing operators. CSAB member Dave Machado is the former director of the Office of Charter Schools. He resigned last year to take a job with Charter Schools USA, a for-profit charter operator.
“The Charter School Advisory Board itself has some conflicts in terms of the board itself, so it’s critical that the State Board of Education remains the authority that has the final approval,” Robinson said.
The review board would include the state superintendent, who would serve as a nonvoting member; eight members appointed by the House and the Senate; two members appointed by the state board who are not current members and lieutenant governor or the lieutenant governor’s designee.
Current CSAB members would complete their terms.
At this month’s CSAB meeting, former chairwoman Cheryl Turner warned colleagues about the responsibilities ahead if HB 618 is approved.
“You guys are getting ready to go into having way more power if this thing [HB 618] goes through about the board review board,” Turner said. “You’re going to have way more power which also means you have way more responsibility because schools that are open or renewed are going to be based on what happens here.”
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