by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
(Part 1 is here.)
“I’m not a bad guy. I really am not. I’m a teacher. I’m a former third-grade teacher. I just want to do what’s best for all our kids.” That is how Jen Mangrum, Democratic candidate for superintendent of public instruction, described herself during a forum sponsored by the NC Association for Public Charter Schools (NCAPCS) and the NC Coalition for Charter Schools (NCCCS) and moderated by my colleague Donna Martinez.
Mangrum made it clear that doing “what’s best for all our kids” includes slashing the number of charter schools.
During the forum, Mangrum reiterated her longstanding belief that charter schools are taking funds from traditional public schools. Her preferred remedy is reinstating a cap on the number of charters. She declared, “I believe that funds are being taken from public schools, traditional public schools, to help pay for charter schools, yes. … I don’t think there should be a cap on enrollment growth, but I’d like to see a cap on the number of charter schools.” She remarked that the cap should be set at 100 charter schools, exactly half of the current number.
The Republican legislative majority eliminated the 100-school cap in 2011 and approved more generous enrollment allowances through the years. Those policy changes began to address years of pent-up demand for charter school seats. The explosive growth in the number of charter schools and charter school students over the last decade has been extraordinary. According to the NC Department of Public Instruction, over 41,000 students attended 99 charter schools during the 2010-11 school year. Over 117,000 students attended 196 charter schools last year.
This year, the number of schools reached 200, and enrollment may reach 121,000 students. Even so, the most recent charter school report estimated that as many as 65,000 children remain on charter school waitlists.
Presumably, Mangrum would reduce the number of charter schools by transferring the management of at least 100 charter schools from nonprofit boards to local districts. In February, she told INDY Week,
Ideally, I’d like to move any *successful charter schools under the control of the district office. Under this new structure, school districts would have the option to grant calendar flexibility, increased school hours, and implement other initiatives and innovations if they thought they’d be an asset to the school system.
*I define successful charter schools as those with diverse populations, provide transportation, free lunch, and serve students with disabilities.
Why does Mangrum believe that local districts should oversee charter school operations? “[C]harter schools have little to no oversight,” Mangrum remarked in July.
Complaints about the purported lack of oversight are typical among those who know little about what state law and State Board of Education policies actually require of charter schools. For example, 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.
Multiple entities, including the Charter School Advisory Board, the Office of Charter Schools, and the State Board of Education, closely monitor charter compliance with financial, academic, and operational rules. When charter schools do not follow these rules, the State Board of Education shuts them down, which is an accountability measure unique to charters.
In addition to demonstrating limited knowledge of state charter school law and policy, Mangrum does not seem to be aware of the powers vested in the office that she is pursuing. For example, at the NCAPCS/NCCCS forum, Mangrum was unsure who had the power to close underperforming charter schools:
That’s part of the job. And so, can I close them or not? I mean, that’s hypothetical. I don’t even know if I have the power. My guess is it goes to the General Assembly. But I certainly would provide the information that I find to the General Assembly and the State Board (of Education) and say here’s what we’re seeing.
As North Carolina’s charter authorizer, the State Board of Education determines the fate of charter schools, a basic fact that someone running for superintendent of public instruction should know.
Overall, the superintendent of public instruction has limited control over charter school policy. The General Assembly has the power to modify charter school laws. The State Board of Education approves and closes charter schools and sets policies for them. The superintendent of public instruction is a nonvoting member of the board and oversees the submission of required reports and information to the General Assembly.
That said, the Office of Charter Schools (OCS) at the NC Department of Public Instruction is under the superintendent’s purview. OCS provides training and technical support to charter school personnel, ensures that all charters comply with state and federal law, and often acts as a liaison between charter schools and state education officials. If elected, will Mangrum try to weaponize the OCS by creating an office of charter cops? Or will she pull critical funding from the office to finance other endeavors within the department?
“Charter schools are the ‘reform movement’ of the wealthy and corporate America. They have not worked for nearly 2 decades, and school districts have suffered because of them,” Mangrum explained to INDY Week in February.
Moreover, she accused charter schools of perpetuating segregation. In an October 5, 2019 forum sponsored by the NC Caucus of Black School Board Members, Mangrum remarked, “Charter schools are a place for families to escape. They’re white flight. They’re resegregating our schools all over again.” When NCAPCS/NCCCS forum moderator Martinez pointed out that charter schools constitute a small share of North Carolina’s public school population, Mangrum backtracked. She claimed that charter schools “continued to influence it and broaden segregation” but not necessarily caused it.
Republican candidate for superintendent of public instruction Catherine Truitt has a favorable view of charter schools. She pointed out that if public and private universities can coexist with minimal conflict, school districts and charter schools should be able to as well. She believes that “charter schools can and should exist wherever there is a desire to create one.”
Truitt is not in the business of trying to second-guess parents’ decisions to enroll their children in charter schools. Instead, she understands that charter schools are a means to expand opportunities and strengthen the state’s public school system to benefit all North Carolina children.
Truitt’s school choice philosophy is straightforward. If you like your school, you can keep it. If you don’t like your school, you should be able to choose an alternative.