Editor's note: This story has been updated with the most recent action from the state Legislature.
Changes to the charter school renewal process have cleared both the state House and Senate, and are on their way to the governor's desk.
The National Association of Charter School Authorizers has come out against the bill, saying the provisions would water down accountability. Advocates, meanwhile, say the changes would make the process more fair and streamlined.
Under the measure, the State Board of Education could close or refuse to renew a charter for poor academic performance but not if its students are meeting expected growth on state tests, or if it’s making progress on an improvement plan approved by the state board.
But NACSA's Director of State Policy Jen Saba says the change could tie the hands of the state board and allow schools to stay open that aren't providing quality education.
"It [the bill] chips away at the foundation of accountability in North Carolina's charter sector," Saba said. "And there are provisions in the bill that could allow a charter school that is low performing to delay or escape accountability and closure for years."
The measure would also allow the State Board of Education to review schools every ten years rather than every five. NACSA has written a letter to state lawmakers urging them not to adopt the changes.
Supporters say the bill allows the state board to focus on schools that really need help, and that it makes the evaluation of charter schools less complicated and more equitable with traditional public schools.
The measure would direct the state board and its Charter School Advisory Board to use the A-F school grading system when deciding whether a school has satisfactory academic performance. Under the current law, the state board and the advisory board use a different standard, which requires schools to meet 60 percent proficiency on state tests or meet expected student growth.
In an interview, Advisory Board Chair Alex Quigley said meeting 60 percent proficiency became tougher after the switch to the Common Core standards in 2012.
"It’s a number that’s not reflective of the current accountability framework and the grading system," he said.
But, like Saba, Quigley was wary of the provision in the bill that would limit the authority of the board to refuse renewal.
"At renewal we’re not terminating—we’re asking 'Would we extend a multimillion dollar grant funded by the taxpayers to this organization?'" he said.
He added that even with growth, persistent low performance over a number of years is something the board would want to consider when offering renewals.
"I wouldn’t want to see anything that narrows our lens or restricts our ability to make hard decisions during renewal," he said.
Finally, the bill would allow charter schools to give enrollment priority to students who attended another charter school the previous year that did not offer the next grade level—for example, a student who finished fifth grade at a K-5 charter could get priority enrollment at a charter middle school.