As another year launches, the Coalition is intent on framing the issues—both good and bad—facing our state’s public charter schools. Who better to do that than the Coalition’s own executive director, Lindalyn Kakadelis? A former teacher and member of the Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board as well as the state’s Charter Schools Advisory Board, Lindalyn has a long history as an educator and advocate. In 2018, she helped found the Coalition with other charter school leaders, seeking to establish a strong, statewide voice to protect and promote public charter schools.
The Coalition’s communications director, Kristen Blair, spoke with Lindalyn about what to expect in the year ahead. We share the full Q&A below.
We’re at the beginning of a new calendar year, with primaries and a general election on the horizon for 2024. What’s the forecast for charter schools?
Lindalyn Kakadelis: The 2023 General Assembly was extremely favorable to charter schools. But what happens in the future depends heavily on the results of the election primary in March, and then of course the general election in November. The bottom line is that we need to elect General Assembly members who see the value of public charter schools. In addition, we want to make sure that each public school student in North Carolina receives the same amount of money, whether that child attends a district school or a public charter school.
The 2024 legislative session will be brief, so we don’t expect as much to be accomplished, simply because it’s the short session. But we’re getting ready for 2025, and that’s going to be very important. The elections—both the primary and general elections—will directly affect the 2025 session, not the 2024 session.
You’ve said before that charter schools are “politically fragile.” What does that mean in practical terms for schools?
Lindalyn: The General Assembly established charter schools in 1996 through legislation. So, the legislature is the body that has control over charter schools, along with the State Board of Education. If North Carolinians don’t elect a majority of pro-charter General Assembly members—Democrat or Republican—then we can’t get our bills passed. If that happens, we will not be able to keep the autonomy that is necessary to fulfill charter schools’ purpose. Unfortunately, we have seen more and more regulatory creep over the years, both at the statutory and regulatory levels. We need a State Board of Education that will work with us, but that is totally dependent on the governor. The governor appoints the State Board of Education members to eight-year terms.
Right now, some members of the State Board of Education have not been confirmed. So, the day a new governor takes the oath of office, he can appoint several new State Board members who are favorable—or unfavorable—to charter schools.
The General Assembly takes care of charter funding issues and policies that have a far-reaching effect on charter schools. Then, the State Board implements that legislation, but if we don’t have a favorable State Board, we risk the Board implementing legislation in the worst possible way. So, really, it’s a domino effect—and it all hinges on elections. Elections really do matter.
Many people do not want to enter the political fray, and I totally understand that. But here’s reality: If you are in a charter school, you are political. We’ve always stated that it’s better to be at the table than on the table.
Why is it so important to elect lawmakers who support charter schools? How can elections impact charter school capacity to grow and operate?
Lindalyn: In the General Assembly last year we were able to end the enrollment cap for any charter school that is not low performing. Now, because of that legislation, charter schools can grow to capacity without having an enrollment cap. That’s so important for our state’s families, as charter schools reported over 77,000 students on their waitlists last year. But if we make the application process so stringent and bureaucratic, it becomes too hard for people to start new charter schools. So, we want to work with the General Assembly to potentially provide facility funding, startup funding—none of that is available right now. That’s what we need to do to make it easier to start charter schools.
Last year, we also successfully pushed for a new law that allows county commissioners to provide facility funding for charter schools. Previously, this was not an option. We’ve already had charter schools take advantage of that. People may not know that up until that legislation, charter schools received no funding for facilities from counties or from the state, and they had to pay for all of their facilities out of their operating funds. That could be as much as 10-15% of the money they receive from the state.
District schools, on the other hand, have bond packages that pay for their facilities. They never have a facility cost that comes out of their operating fund. When I was on the Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board, we had our budget, and then we would request bond funding. It’s two totally separate funding streams. But charter schools receive no funds from bonds. People don’t understand that.
What do parents need to know about charter schools and the broader political context? What can they do to support the charter school movement?
Lindalyn: Parents need to realize that charter schools have only been around since 1996, and they can be closed down. If charter schools don’t perform, the state shuts them down, and that is as it should be. But there’s another threat to charter schools, which is regulatory reform. That can absolutely stifle charter schools. The Coalition tries to stop regulatory creep, so that charter schools can flourish with the flexibility and innovation they were intended to have.
In addition, parents and charter stakeholders need to know accurate information about charter schools and understand when charter school myths are being pushed by anti-charter special interest groups. One common myth is that charter schools drain money from district schools. This is simply untrue. When a family decides to send their child to a charter school, the charter school takes the student and the money to educate that student. But that charter school isn’t “draining” money—the money should belong to the student, not the system. And the district is no longer educating that student or bearing costs associated with that child’s education!
So, in grocery stores and places of worship, parents need to be able to share accurate facts about charter schools. Parents should also share on social media about their experience at their charter school—why they are happy with it, and that they want it to continue.
Finally, in some of our charter schools, parents don’t realize how political charter schools are. They see them as similar to a district school that will never close. But that is just not the case. Charter schools can be closed, and they must also apply for renewal at set intervals established by the state. It’s important for parents to know that there are people who do not want school choice to exist. They believe the system is more important than the child, and they don’t recognize that one size does not fit all. But we must have educational options for families outside of their zip code.
How are politics in North Carolina right now impacting charter schools—and what is at stake?
Lindalyn: When a charter school has a bad actor or doesn’t perform, the anti-charter special interest groups do their best to make it look like all charter schools are like that. But that isn’t the case. Unfortunately, there are bad actors in every type of school—private, public, religious, independent—but we should not try to sink an entire schooling movement because of one bad actor. But that’s what we’re seeing: Anti-charter groups leverage one bad situation as the reason to call for more stringent charter regulations across the board.
What’s at stake? Stifling all the innovation at a charter school. Innovation is what parents really like about charter schools. But if regulatory creep continues, charter schools will have their hands tied behind their backs and will not be able to do what the parents want.
That’s why it’s important for people to read the Coalition’s blog and communications pieces, because we consistently advocate for flexibility and innovation. The Coalition is constantly fighting to stop regulatory creep and protect autonomy. But we are seeing more regulatory creep now than ever.
The Coalition is holding its second annual Charter Advocacy Summit in March. Why should school leaders attend, and what can they expect to learn?
Lindalyn: Our first Summit was such a success. We know everyone is so busy, and so we plan intentionally to fit everything into a one-day format. We let our charter leaders know what is happening in Raleigh, how to advocate for charter needs, and how to build relationships with General Assembly members. We do that important relationship-building with lawmakers through a reception the night before.
School leaders, we try to get as many representatives as possible there to meet you. We’ll also share what you can expect from the new Charter Schools Review Board, along with recent policy changes that impact your funding and school construction. And our Government Relations Team will provide a legislative outlook, analyze new election primary results, and share an overview with you of the legal landscape.
We’re doing all of this to help not just the charter school movement but to help your school, too! If you aren’t aware of the new charter school renewal policy that the State Board of Education just introduced, for example, then how can you advocate for change? Before the Coalition, charter school leaders often found out about things after the fact, without having the chance to be proactive. They had to throw their hands up and say, “That’s just the way things have to be.”
Now, the Coalition is here, saying, “Things don’t have to be that way.” We look at the legal way to protect your charter autonomy and flexibility, and we work strategically and effectively with the General Assembly to ensure that happens.