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Lightning rod leaders among 19 nationally honored

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(The Center Square) – Reps. Tricia Cotham and John Torbett, co-chairs of the North Carolina House of Representatives Education K-12 Committee who have drawn plenty of controversy this year, are among 19 lawmakers nationwide recognized for their strong support for charter schools.

Cotham, of Mecklenburg County, switched political parties to join the Republican majority in April. Torbett, R-Gaston, became a target when he amended a Children’s Laws Omnibus bill to allow parents to take action against superintendents who violate their rights to raise and educate their children.

Both have also faced criticism for sponsoring legislation that greatly expands charter schools in the Old North State. The legislation includes House Bill 219, a charter school omnibus that allows public money for charter school construction and increases charter school enrollment, and House Bill 618 to create a new Charter School Review Board to streamline the approval process.

Both charter school bills were vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, only to be overridden by the General Assembly last week.

The resilience of both lawmakers to push the legislation across the finish line is one reason why the National Alliance for Public Schools awarded each their 2023 Champion for Charter Schools Award.

“These lawmakers earned this distinction for their tireless efforts in supporting these unique public schools and for displaying the political courage to prioritize high-quality public education options for students,” according to the alliance.

“This charter school award is very special to me as it comes at a critical juncture in education where we as parents and grandparents of our school aged children are asking for change in our education system,” Torbett said. “My focus is and will continue to be on our children succeeding and allowing parents a choice in their children’s education.”

North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools Executive Director Rhonda Dillingham told The Center Square, “Reps. Torbett and Cotham were critical to the passage of HB219 and HB618, both of which are going to expand opportunities for new and existing charter schools in this state.”

The focus now turns to helping schools understand the new laws and how to implement them, she said.

“That means helping existing schools understand the implications of things like lifted enrollment restrictions and possibilities for local funding,” she said. “Facilities funding continues to be an area of high interest and concern for our organization, so the ability for counties to contribute to charter school capital needs if they wish to do so is a historic win.

“For schools that have yet to be formed, these two new pieces of legislation are about understanding the changed environment that has become open to them: From the elimination of local impact statements for consideration in the charter approval process to the restructuring of the Charter School Review Board, the playing field is different for new charters and we want to help them take advantage of the resources available to them.”

North Carolina has 206 public charter schools that will educate about 130,000 students this year, including just over 14,000 new students enrolled between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

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