The future of public charter schools in North Carolina may depend on who controls the General Assembly and occupies Council of State offices. If you are a charter school parent like me or simply want to ensure that all families have plentiful educational options, it is critical that you consider candidates’ views of charter schools.

Public charter schools are more popular than ever. According to the NC Department of Public Instruction, over 41,000 students attended 99 charter schools during the 2010-11 school year. The Republican legislative majority eliminated the 100-school cap in 2011 and approved more generous enrollment allowances in subsequent years. As a result, an estimated 121,000 children will attend 198 brick-and-mortar and two online charter schools this year.

Republicans generally, but not universally, welcomed this remarkable growth. Democrats have cooled on charter schools in recent years, as teacher unions have demanded allegiance to districts whose members constitute the bulk of their financial support.

Earlier this year, the NC Association for Public Charter Schools (NCAPCS) and the NC Coalition for Charter Schools (NCCCS) sent two-page questionnaires to candidates running for the General Assembly and Council of State offices. Overall, 112 candidates from five political parties submitted responses (available here and here) for a response rate of 31%.

Misconceptions transcended political party and ideology

Take, for example, the issue of what a charter school is. Charter schools are public schools. The state charter school statute defines a charter school as a “public school within the local school administrative unit in which it is located” and outlines a funding system using public dollars. But not all elected officials or candidates for office recognize this fact. Of those who submitted responses to the survey, 92 agreed that charter schools are public schools, but 17 Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians said that charters are not public schools, and three Democratic candidates were unsure.

Moreover, state law and State Board of Education policy mandate that every charter school “is required to undergo an annual audit for both its finances and its compliance with applicable federal and state laws and policies.” Annual audits must be conducted by an independent auditor approved by the Local Governance Commission and posted on the school’s website. Even so, a dozen candidates said that charter schools are not held to satisfactory levels of financial transparency.

Policy preferences vary as well.

Currently, charter schools do not receive facilities funding, but 79 respondents believe that they should. Six Democrats and one Republican believe that state lawmakers should reinstate a cap on the number of charter schools that can operate statewide. A solid 92 candidates believe that charter schools should receive the same amount of money as district schools. On the other hand, only around half said that the state should move to a weighted student funding model, a system of distributing education funding based on student needs and circumstances. There was overwhelming support for charter school flexibility, although some candidates disliked charters’ ability to hire unlicensed teachers.

Council of State races

While it is important to know what candidates did say, it is equally notable what they didn’t say.

Democrats Gov. Roy Cooper, lieutenant governor candidate Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley, superintendent of public instruction candidate Jen Mangrum, and candidate for state treasurer Ronnie Chatterji did not return completed surveys. Their lack of participation is alarming because all four offices have critical roles in shaping policy for North Carolina’s 200 charter schools. The governor appoints members to the NC State Board of Education, which approves and closes charter schools and sets policies for them. The lieutenant governor and state treasurer sit on the board as voting members. The superintendent of public instruction is a nonvoting member of the State Board of Education and oversees the Office of Charter Schools at the NC Department of Public Instruction.

Gov. Cooper generally opposes efforts to expand charter schools. In 2018, Cooper vetoed a bill that would have permitted municipalities to support charter schools. He said the legislation would “set a dangerous precedent that could lead to taxpayer funded re-segregation.” Last year, Cooper vetoed a bill that would have allowed the state’s two virtual charter schools to increase their enrollment by 20%, pointing out that the State Board of Education had the power to lift the enrollment cap without legislative approval. Despite these vetoes and a pattern of snubbing the charter school community, he does not appear to hate charters nearly as much as he hates North Carolina’s private school voucher program for low-income children. His opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, is a school choice champion.

Earlier this year, Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley told INDY Week, “I believe Charter Schools should have a cap so they do not force public schools into becoming segregated and/or underperforming schools. Many Charter Schools pull financial resources, talented teachers, and gifted students in many areas of NC. Yet to date, they are not held to the same accountability standards that traditional public schools are under.” Similarly, she supports “stronger accountability standards and better authorization mechanisms,” as well as allowing school districts to create and govern their own charters. Rep. Holley’s opponent is Republican Mark Robinson, who has made the expansion of school choice one of the pillars of his platform.

Ronnie Chatterji is a Duke University business professor who understandably focuses on non-educational issues in his campaign for state treasurer, so there is little information about his charter school perspectives. Republican State Treasurer Dale Folwell is a long-time school choice proponent.

Jen Mangrum did not complete the NCAPCS/NCCCS survey but has voiced her opinion on charter schools as she vies to become the next superintendent of public instruction. I’ll detail her opinions about charters in part 2. Unlike Republican state superintendent candidate Catherine Truitt, Mangrum is not a fan of charter schools.