The General Assembly's Republican leaders were forced to compromise on a charter schools bill this year, but they'll be back. Eliminating the cap on charters was just the beginning, the GOP vows, and the party will get the rest of what it wants by any means necessary—even by passing a raft of local bills that the governor can't veto.
Next up on the GOP agenda: capital funding for charter schools and more clout, if not outright independence, for a newly created charter schools advisory council that is supposed to report to the State Board of Education.
That was the message from such top Republicans as House Speaker Thom Tillis when members of the NC Alliance for Public Charter Schools came to Raleigh last week for its annual conference, the second in the group's brief history.
Senate Bill 8, which is now law, eliminated the longstanding cap of 100 charter schools statewide. But Tillis acknowledged that measure was a compromise with Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, fashioned to avoid a veto the Republicans didn't think they could override.
But in fiery remarks to alliance members who came to the General Assembly auditorium for pep talks from the Republicans, Tillis ripped into the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), which fought SB 8. Of the NCAE's tactics, Tillis said, "the way they hammered you, [was] immoral," and he promised that the Republicans would have the last word.
"I will tell you that there are other options," Tillis said, "and we will be successful."
One option is to pass a series of local bills that achieve, county by county, what a statewide bill would do if Perdue and the NCAE weren't in the way. Local bills, by definition, are supposed to deal with local matters and are applicable only in a given county or municipality; they are not subject to a gubernatorial veto.
"Don't be surprised," Tillis told the group, "if we don't have charter school legislation in 50 counties that'll do whatever the hell we want it to do."
Using local bills in this way is unprecedented since governors were given the veto power in 1996. But as unprecedented is Republican control of the General Assembly, which last happened in Raleigh in the 19th century. Following the party's landslide election win in 2010, Republicans hold a veto-proof 31-19 edge in the Senate; but in the House, its 68-52 margin is four votes short of the needed three-fifths majority.
Tillis, recognizing that what he'd said was highly controversial, added that his legal advisers have told him that the General Assembly can pass the same or similar bills in up to 50 of 100 counties in the same two-year legislative term, and still consider it "local" legislation.
If Wake, Durham, Mecklenburg and other populous counties were among the 50, the effect would be to cover the majority of people in North Carolina with veto-proof local laws.
Tillis' combative tone contrasted with the upbeat vibe of the conference itself, which drew about 500 charter school leaders, teachers, vendors and observers to the Raleigh Marriott City Center hotel. Alliance President Eddie Goodall, a former Republican state senator and co-founder of a charter school in Union County, called enactment of SB 8 "historic." He said it marks the beginning of a new chapter for charter schools, 15 years after the initial law allowed just 100 such schools.
With the cap lifted, Goodall predicted steady growth, but "no explosion" in the number of charter schools in North Carolina. He pledged that his group will insist on quality, not just quantity, as new charters are established.
To that end, he said, numerous management companies, as well as the leaders of existing charter schools, can help groups interested in starting new charters. Among them were the conference sponsors, who were hawking everything from classroom furniture to first aid training for school personnel, and sniffing for new business as part of the conference trade show: Diamond Sponsor Acadia NorthStar, Platinum Sponsor Challenge Foundation/ TeamCFA and Silver Sponsor Charter Schools USA, among others. For those needing start-up funding, there was RBC Capital Markets.
Acadia NorthStar, with an office in Raleigh, provides financial management, accounting and student data services to 67 charter schools in North Carolina, the company says.
TeamCFA, short for Challenge Foundation Academies, is akin to a franchise for charter schools that use its curriculum, methods and school uniforms. The Challenge Foundation is a private charitable trust located in Colorado. According to its website, it's awarded grants to 187 charter schools nationwide, leading to development of a CFA model now used by seven charters, including four in western North Carolina.
Charter Schools USA operates 31 charter schools in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana and offers itself as a virtual turnkey operation for local charter school backers.
A major bone of contention in the battle over SB 8 was whether new charter schools should be approved by the State Board of Education or by a separate, independent commission.
Republican legislators consider the state board a tool of the governor's office because 11 of its 14 members are gubernatorial appointments. The 11 must be confirmed by the General Assembly, however, and since March it has refused to act on three of Perdue's nominees, including her reappointment of Chairman Bill Harrison.
SB 8 originally included an independent commission, and the bill sponsor, Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, told the alliance that he thinks such a commission is permissible under the state constitution.
Opponents, including the NCAE, disagree. They point to Article IX of the constitution, which states that the State Board of Education "shall supervise and administer the free public school system and the educational funds provided for its support ... subject to laws enacted by the General Assembly." Legislative enactments, they argue, must be consistent with the state board's powers, not disable them.
In the end, the opponents prevailed. The law signed by Perdue creates a 15-member advisory council, with eight of the 15 to be named by the governor, six by legislative leaders and one by State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson. But the final decision whether to approve or reject a charter-school application is left to the state board.
Stevens said Republican leaders "will be watching very closely" to see whether the state board assists or obstructs the process of bringing new charters to life over the next two years. If the board receives 50 good applications and approves 48, that'll be fine, he said. But if it receives 50 and approves two, it'll be trouble.
"We expect to see some charters," Stevens said. Looking directly at Atkinson, who also spoke at the conference, Stevens said he thinks the board "has gotten the message." She nodded.
In its original form, SB 8 also would've permitted counties to finance the building of charter schools in the same way as traditional public schools, and it would've cut charters in for a share of state lottery funds. Neither source of money is available to charters now. They do receive public funds generally equal to the per-pupil operating costs of traditional schools in the same county.
On the other side, Democrats objected that charter schools aren't required to provide student transportation or provide lunch, even to students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch that the federal government would pay for.
However, Democrats said, some charter schools, though ostensibly open to low-income students, are enclaves of privilege in upscale neighborhoods, with public funds supplemented by contributions from affluent parents. Meanwhile, according to state data, 21 of the existing 100 charter schools are predominantly black, or black and Hispanic, and operate in low-income neighborhoods at a significant financial disadvantage due to a lack of capital funds.
Democrats wanted rules to force the integration of charter schools in return for capital funds. Republicans wanted capital funds but no such rules. Finally, to get a bill both sides would support, everything was stripped out of the Stevens bill except the elimination of the 100-schools cap.
"It was more important to get the cap lifted," Stevens said, adding, "We'll be back."