Publisher's note: The author of this post is Dan Way, who is an associate editor for the Carolina Journal, John Hood Publisher.
Charter schools make major gains, vouchers allowed for low-income and disabled students
RALEIGH - School choice advocates won several high-profile battles this year over bills to expand and strengthen the charter school movement and to award private school vouchers to students struggling in public schools.
"The great news for families is that the charter school reforms approved by the legislature provide even more high-quality educational options for their children," said Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.
"The new charter school advisory board will ensure that only applicants with a sound financial and educational plan receive a charter from the state. For existing charter schools, laws that make grade expansion easier and virtually guarantee sibling admission provide much-needed stability and relief for families with multiple children," Stoops said.
The General Assembly has done more to expand the availability of charter schools in the last three years than at any time since 1996, when charter schools first won legislative approval, he said.
"The bottom line is that there are more charter schools, and more open seats in those schools, as a result of the bold initiatives passed by the Republican-led state legislature," Stoops said.
Senate Bill 337 establishes a Charter School Advisory Board designed to enhance oversight and speed approval of charter school applications. Initially, the bill gave the board policymaking powers, but the final version changed the board to advisory in nature after legal analysts noted that the state constitution says only the State Board of Education can set policy for public schools, including public charter schools.
"The bill would require the State Board of Education to establish charter fees of no less than $500 and no more than $1,000, require charter schools to comply with criminal background check policies of the [school district] in which they're located, require that 50 percent of teachers in grades K-12 be certified," Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, said during debate on the final conference committee report.
House Bill 250 makes it easier for charter schools to expand. Charter schools now may increase enrollment as much as 20 percent from one school year to the next and add one grade more than they currently offer without having to gain approval from the State Board of Education.
Most of the education establishment's rhetorical fireworks were reserved for the $10 million included in the budget for the 2014-15 school year for House Bill 944, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which drew immediate threats of lawsuits.
"You are placing a sign on each school's door that says, 'Quality educators need not apply,'" North Carolina Association of Educators President Rodney Ellis wrote in a two-page letter to lawmakers.
"We will now shift our focus on the judiciary, where we are confident that we will find yet another victory in our struggle to provide quality public schools for every child," Ellis wrote.
The scholarships (aka vouchers) provide as much as $4,200 to help pay for private school education when a parent chooses to remove a child from public school. The scholarships expand on current state programs offering taxpayer subsidies for private pre-kindergarten and college students. North Carolina would become the 10th state to offer such K-12 scholarships.
"Opportunity Scholarships will become a critical cornerstone in meeting the growing needs of children who show up at the schoolhouse doors each year still unable to read, write, and solve math problems at grade level," said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
"We believe the alleged constitutional challenges to Opportunity Scholarships are misguided at best, and, at worst, impede the progress of children who can't wait another year to get the foundation they need to be successful in life. These scholarships are an additional tool to help the state meets its constitutional obligation to provide a 'sound, basic education' for every child," Allison said.
Also passed was House Bill 269, the "Children with Disabilities Scholarships Grants," which replaces and expands the special needs tax credit, allowing more families to benefit from the program. Low-income families who paid no or very little state personal income tax were not able to take full advantage of the tax credit. The scholarships, however, will be open to children from all income levels.
"The scholarships will be awarded to reimburse tuition and special education and related services for eligible children entering kindergarten or first grade or children transferring from a public school to a nonpublic school or homeschool. The grants cannot exceed $3,000 per semester," beginning in the 2014 spring semester, said sponsor Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake.
There are reports "from across the state from parents of children with special needs who have struggled in our current public school system now to get all of the services that are required," said Julia Adams, assistant government relations director for The ARC of North Carolina.
Kara Kerwin, vice president of external affairs at Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, applauded the school choice reforms.
"States where parents have options to choose tend to yield higher growth rates in student achievement," Kerwin said.
North Carolina currently ranks 21st nationally on the Parent Power Index, which measures the ability in each state of a parent to exercise choices - no matter what their income or child's level of academic achievement - engage with their local school and board, and have a voice in the systems that surround the child, according to the Center for Education Reform.