N.C. Tea Party Targets Education Reform
Tea Party leader Gardner wants activists to push lawmakers on charters
By Jim Stegall | Carolina Journal
RALEIGH — Charter school advocates have picked up a significant ally in their fight to reform the state’s laws governing charter schools in the upcoming legislative session. Leaders of North Carolina’s Tea Party movement are showing increased interest in charter schools, and plan to be at the table when lawmakers consider changes to the charter school law.
A leader of this effort in North Carolina is Waynesville resident and retired retail manager Bruce Gardner, a leader of the group Tea Party Western North Carolina. The connections between Tea Party activists and school choice go far beyond the state’s borders. “We are working with Tea Party leaders throughout the country on moving forward legislation that helps to reform our public school system,” Gardner said in a recent interview. “We must get our education system back [to being] student-centered.”
For Gardner, charter school activism is a natural outgrowth of core Tea Party philosophy. “One of the three major tenets of the Tea Party is free markets,” he said, “and one emphasis of the Tea Party nationally is education. The most basic free market should be in education.”
Gardner sees charter schools as one part of a broader solution to the nation’s education woes. The solution also includes vouchers and scholarships to enable parents to send their children to private and parochial schools, he said. In his view, education funding should follow the child to a school of the parents’ choosing.
““We feel that parents should be able to choose to send their child to a public charter, or a private school, even [providing tax credits] for homeschoolers,” he said. “If that taxpayer has paid to educate the child, they shouldn’t have to pay twice.”
The Tea Party’s interest in charter schools comes at the time a strongly pro-charter Republican Party is set to take control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century. Republicans ran on a platform calling for the elimination of the state’s cap of 100 charter schools. Many who won legislative races received significant backing from local Tea Party affiliates.
Tea Party Western North Carolina endorsed two victorious Republican challengers in the last election, helping swing the state Senate into Republican hands. Community college administrator Ralph Hise defeated incumbent Democrat Joe Sam Queen in District 47, and dentist Jim Davis edged out incumbent Democrat John Snow in District 50.
Gardner says that activists put out voter guides, staffed polling places, and held events for these and other favored candidates. And now that they’ve won, Tea Party activists will be pressing them for action on issues like charter schools.
He’s urging Tea Party activists to call their legislators “to not only support school choice legislation but to sponsor the bills.” Noting that Tea Party activists tend to be “fiercely independent,” he says he’ll be asking them “to become personally involved with their state senators and state representatives.”
Gardner says Tea Party groups are “working with several people to try to help design formal legislation. The intellectual work is pretty well done. The problem is that none of it has ever gotten any traction because there has never been a grass-roots movement like the Tea Party,” he said. “There haven’t been any boots on the ground to carry these concepts, these models forward. The difference now is that we have millions of Tea Party people in the country, thousands of Tea Party organizations, and these people right now are carrying an awful lot of political influence as we head towards 2012.”
Eliminating the cap on the number of charter schools is an obvious first step, Gardner says, “But simply getting rid of the cap is only part one.” He called for “comprehensive reform” of the state’s charter school law, adding, “we would like to suggest that the body that oversees the chartering and provides the oversight and monitoring of the charter schools be put under an independent appointed commission, rather than under the Department of Public Instruction. We think it should be independent of those departments.”
That move could pose difficulties should the General Assembly address it. Some observers within the charter community have questioned whether an independent oversight commission would run afoul of the state’s constitution, which gives the State Board of Education authority over all public schools, including charters.
Article IX, Section 5 of the North Carolina Constitution states that the board “shall supervise and administer the free public school system … and shall make all needed rules and regulations in relation thereto, subject to laws enacted by the General Assembly.” Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson has said she believes that section gives the state board oversight authority of charter schools.
Atkinson has experience dealing with constitutional issues in education — she waged a successful court battle to restore the constitutional powers of her office after the General Assembly had reduced the superintendent’s position to little more than figurehead status.
Another area of concern for Gardner is charter schools’ access to funding for facilities. Under current law, charter schools receive no public funds for construction, and counties (which provide the bulk of the funding for district schools’ building needs) are forbidden to give money to charter schools for buildings.
Gardner says that ought to change. “Charter schools need the ability to issue bonds for the construction of facilities,” he said.
Like many Tea Party activists, Gardner became involved seriously in politics only recently. The retired retail manager living in Waynesville says he got interested in the “9-12 Project” touted by Fox News commentator Glen Beck, primarily as a result of the federal stimulus bill passed in the early days of the Obama administration.
Gardner recently formed a group called Tea for Education and is working with activists in the Carolinas and Georgia to establish similar groups. If his efforts are successful, he plans to take the group national.
Jim Stegall is a contributor to Carolina Journal.