Stuart Egan is a high school teacher in Clemmons, North Carolina. This letter is addressed to a key Republican who is leading the charge to shift more public funds to privately managed charter schools.

This is an open letter to Sen. Jerry Tillman, R- Randolph County and the Majority Whip in the NC State Senate. This letter concerns his amendment to House Bill 334 to remove oversight of charter schools from DPI and his primary sponsorship of Senate Bill 456, a bill to forward more public money to charter schools.
Sen. Tillman,

Your crusade to create a lucrative charter school industry at the hands of public schools again has reached new heights of irrationality and hubris, and it is indicative of an exclusionary attitude when it comes to serving the people of North Carolina.

I am not surprised that you as a leader of the GOP caucus in the North Carolina General Assembly would spearhead a campaign to keep privatizing education in North Carolina, but the fact that you are a retired public school educator pushing this agenda makes me think that your commitment to provide a quality education to all of our state’s children simply vanished when you took an “oath” as a politician.

As reported on July 23rd in Lindsay Wagner’s news story entitled “Tillman’s bill impacts charter school oversight”, you championed an amendment to House Bill 334 that now places oversight of charter schools under the care of the State Board of Education and out of the Department of Public Instruction’s jurisdiction.

What this does is essentially place the responsibility of monitoring charter schools into the hands of an entity that is not prepared for that task. When pressed on the matter, you expressed that you intended to allocate funds to allow the SBE to hire personnel to monitor charter schools. Really? Spend more money on charters by creating a situation where you can protect them from checks and balances? This sounds more like a way for you to fashion a favorable situation for new charter schools to not only operate more freely, but be less transparent.

Ms. Wagner also detailed the abrupt manner in which you fielded questions from other legislators who were concerned with the surreptitious manner in which you operated. You stated that “DPI was never in love … with charter schools.” By whose standards is this true? Yours? Is it because DPI has been able to identify indiscretions with many charter schools that needed to be corrected?

When Sen. Josh Stein (D-Wake) confronted you for more clarification about why your amendment was actually beneficial to children of North Carolina, you hid behind a curtain of illogical clichés and glittering generalities. Sen. Stein asked in what ways DPI had inhibited charter school creation and you shot back, “I’m not going to give you the details. A good lawyer would never do that.” That’s odd. You are a lawmaker. You should produce details. In fact, good lawyers very much pay attention to details.

When further pressed to offer details as to why DPI should be divested of charter school oversight, you said, “We don’t air dirty laundry here.” Senator, if there is enough dirty laundry to create the need for your amendment, then you probably need to show everyone the stains. And where and when should this “dirty laundry” get aired? It seems like you were in the laundromat already.

You were in a meeting specifically to address House Bill 334 and you brought forth an amendment which totally changes the scope of how charter schools are managed and then you bullishly refused to explain yourself. If your reasoning is so sound, then why did you not clarify it? When people refuse to answer questions that require thoughtful answers, then it usually means that one is either hiding some secret agenda or really has no logical reasoning whatsoever, or both. I am thinking that it is both because this is just the last of a series of actions that have shown you bulldozing the public schools to create more charter schools without oversight.

A June 4th report by Laura Leslie for WRAL entitled “Senate Education Leader blasts charter chief” detailed your outburst in a meeting concerning why DPI refused to grant charters for many new charter school applications. Reading your comments makes you sound like a playground bully who did not get his way. The first few sentences of the report used phrases like “angry outburst” and “public dressing-down” to describe your tirade. Joel Medley, the State Office of Charter Schools director, actually explained to you the reasoning for the denial of some charters. He did not seem to hide behind some political agenda. He was willing to air dirty laundry for the sake of the state’s welfare. No lawyer needs to explain that.

Let’s go back a few weeks. I now refer to the April 28th edition of the Winston-Salem Journal, when education writer Arika Herron reported that you proposed a bill (SB 456) which “would send more money to charter schools” by taking more from traditional public schools in next year’s budget (“NC Senate bill would send more money to charter schools”). I have to admit; at least you are consistent.

It appears that you publicly ignore that charter schools can practice exclusion and in many cases divert public funds to unregulated entities. Charter schools are not required to offer transportation or provide free/reduced lunches. They can selectively limit enrollment and hire non-certified educators. Most charter schools simply lack transparency. And a further consequence is that SB 456 targets poorer people because you introduced a bill that would exclude more poor people (who still pay taxes) from the benefits of a quality education that you perceive only charter schools can give.

Sen. Tillman, you do not seem to care if your wish to expand charter schools actually widens the income gap that so much grips our state. You made that perfectly clear on Feb. 23rd, 2011, when you were shown on a video posted by Rob Schofield on the website. You fielded a question that expressed concern over whether lower-income kids could have equal chances to attend charter schools. Your response was indicative of the exclusionary attitude that your proposed bill embraces.

You said, “It’s certainly okay if they don’t go there [the charter school]. They can go to their public schools. They can get their free and reduced price lunch. And they can do that. But the charter school itself and the commission must decide what they can do and when they can do it financially. And that’s where we are now and that’s where we’re gonna’ be and I’m certainly for that.”

With a response like that, how can you claim to represent all North Carolinians? The fact is that no matter the socioeconomic background of the students, traditional schools do succeed when proper resources are allotted (money, textbooks, time, respect, etc.). When teachers have the support of the public AND the legislature, any school can show student growth. However, your statement leads one to think that you are promoting exclusivity based on income levels.
And this is not the first time that you have alienated those who suffer from poverty.

You were a primary sponsor for the Voting Reform Act in the 2013-2014 sessions, leading the charge to fight non-existent voter fraud in our state by fast-tracking a voter ID law that was purposefully constructed to keep many people’s voices from being heard, especially minority and low-income citizens. If these people are silenced, then how can they democratically affect outcomes in elections that may sanction positive change for their children and grandchildren including issues surrounding public education? You seem to be denying them the very right that you have sworn to protect and uphold as an elected official.

As a public school teacher, I am amazed that you continue to belittle the very public schools that you yourself once served as a teacher, coach, principal and assistant superintendent – for over 40 years! You are drawing a pension for being a public school retiree!

But now you are a seven-term state senator and a willing participant in transforming North Carolina from what was considered the most progressive state in the Southeast into what has regressed into a stagnated commonwealth ruled by reactionary policies.

And what seems most egregious is that you are the co-chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee. Your decisions impact ALL STUDENTS! You have a direct influence in how schools are funded, what they can teach, and how they are measured. Surely you remember the Jeb Bush inspired letter-grading system you helped implement that found most “failing” schools in North Carolina resided in areas where there were concentrated pockets of poverty.

As a public official you are under oath to uphold the state’s constitution which ensures all students a quality public education. Instead you are compromising all students in traditional schools while taking more of the valuable money and resources allocated for them to give to charter schools that do not have to abide by the same regulations.

If you truly want to positively impact public education, then invest more in pre-K programs and expand Medicaid so more kids come to school healthy and prepared. Reinstitute the Teaching Fellows program to keep our bright future teachers here in North Carolina. Then give decent raises to veteran teachers so they finish their careers here instead of in other states.

Real leaders take away obstacles that impede those who are served. You are creating more.

Stuart Egan, NBCT
West Forsyth High School
Clemmons, NC