Controversial Town-Run Charter Schools May Spread, With Access To State Pensions
A law that allows for town-run charter schools in four Charlotte suburbs has been criticized because it could lead to more racially segregated schools in that area. Now, a bill to offer state pensions to teachers at those proposed schools could make it easier for the model to spread to more cities.
That bill (S469) is on the governor’s desk awaiting veto or signature.
In June, the General Assembly passed a law (H514) that allows for the communities of Cornelius, Huntersville, Matthews and Mint Hill to create their own charter schools. Representative Bill Brawley (R-Mecklenburg) sponsored the bill, arguing that his constituents were calling for more school options due to overcrowding.
Meanwhile, critics, including the North Carolina NAACP, say municipal charter schools would revive school segregation, because the law allows schools to give enrollment priority to students who reside in those towns. The four towns that have legislative approval to create municipal charter schools are in wealthy, majority-white neighborhoods. Traditional charter schools cannot limit admission to students based on their zip code.
The law was passed as a local act, meaning that it affects only certain local governments, and is not subject to veto by the governor. It is uncertain whether this bill would have had the support to pass if it had been run as a statewide bill.
Demand for Schools
Local residents seeking the municipal charter schools, including Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla, say the demand for the schools is not related to segregation.
“We literally have many [public] schools that have trailers right now,” explains Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla. “It’s partially over-crowding, and it’s partially the growth that’s going to occur here.”
Aneralla says parents in Huntersville are frustrated with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools because the district has no plans to fund new school construction in his area for the next 10 years. He says long waitlists of more than two thousand students seeking admission at nearby charter schools indicate a demand for more school choice.
State Pensions Provide Helpful Funding
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has publicly opposed the technical corrections bill passed last week that would allow municipal charter schools to offer state benefits to their employees.
“Prior to this technical corrections bill, the functional reality is, these schools weren’t going to start,” said Charles Jeter, legislative liaison for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
An early version of the H514 bill included a provision that would allow the schools’ to participate in the Teachers' and State Employees' Retirement System (TSERS) and the state health plan. However, over debate that the provision would disqualify the bill as a local act, the Senate passed an amendment that deleted that provision.
The final version of the bill that became law instead allows for employees of the proposed charter schools to participate in benefits for municipal employees. However, North Carolina’s local government pension plan (LGERS) can not apply to 10-month employees, which includes teachers.
Jeter said without the ability to fund employee pensions on TSERS or LGERS, municipal charter schools would not be able to hire teachers.
“I don’t think it’s a roadblock,” said Aneralla. “[The state pension] is an enhancement to allow us to have that option.”
Aneralla added that all other traditional charter schools can offer state benefits to their staff. But, he said, if that option was not on the table, municipal charter schools with private operators could offer their own benefits.
The measure to extend state employee benefits to municipal charter schools would apply to any future proposed schools, not just those approved in Mecklenburg County. Opponents of the bill see that as a slippery slope.
“As a result, the likelihood of this idea spreading statewide, just went up exponentially,” Jeter said.
Any other municipality that wishes to pursue its own charter school with access to state employee benefits could be granted permission by a local act, which are not subject to veto. This point may be especially pertinent since, beginning in January, Republicans in the General Assembly will no longer be able to override Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s vetoes without swaying Democratic representatives in the House as well.
What Happens Next
Jeter says he expects organizations opposed to municipal charter schools may take H514 to court, because it passed its second reading with the state retirement provision – a measure that was in conflict with the bill’s status as a local act.
“They should have had to go back and refile the bill, and take it up as a statewide bill, and they didn’t do that,” Jeter explained.
Meanwhile, Governor Roy Cooper has made no indication that he will veto S469, and has through this weekend to do so.