RALEIGH — Two of the House K-12 Education Committee co-chairs responsible for legislation advancing school choice and charter school access were given the 2023 Champion for Charter Schools Award last month.
Reps. John Torbett (R-Gaston) and Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg) were two of the 19 state and local lawmakers given the award by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). The recipients were recognized for their commitment to “seeing public education and charter schools thrive and expand in their state,” according to a press release by NAPCS.
“This bipartisan group of lawmakers has fought for students, families, and high-quality public education options in their states,” Nina Rees, president and CEO of the NAPCS, said in the press release. “We celebrate and commend their work in state capitols and city halls, and for putting the interests of students and families first. The ability for public charter schools to innovate and serve more families and communities is possible due to the sound policy put forth by lawmakers like our 2023 Champions.”
“I am humbled and heartened by the honor of being named a Charter Champion,” Cotham said in the NAPCS press release. “It is extremely rewarding to see so many North Carolinians working toward the common goal of putting children first, and to be recognized for being a part of that process is just incredible.
“As a single mother and former teacher/principal, I know firsthand that we need real solutions for the current state of our education system. It takes individual lawmakers working together and having meaningful dialogue to solve those problems that actually need to be solved. I am proud of the innovative work our charters do across North Carolina and the nation. I look forward to watching charter school students, faculty and staff continue their paths to progress and achievement as my colleagues and I move forward in the Legislature.”
The Mecklenburg lawmaker has spearheaded several school choice bills this legislative session, including one of the largest expansions of school choice in the state; House Bill 823, titled, “Choose your school, choose your future.” Under the bill, all families in the state would have some level of access to the Opportunity Scholarship Program which supplies funding for families to send their child to the private school of their choice.
“First let me say how honored I am to receive the recognition as a Charter Champion,” Torbett said in the press release. “Three years ago, I started off on a Fix Our Education System campaign. Over that time, we have won the battle on many issues needing to be corrected to better our public education system.
“I remain comforted by the educational opportunities offered to our students through our Public Charter Schools. Their approach to educating children is the example to follow to better our children’s educational outcomes. I look forward to our charter schools’ growth and continued success in educating North Carolina’s next generation of leaders.”
Torbett was the primary sponsor of over a dozen education-related bills this session as well as being a strong supporter of multiple charter school bills, including House Bill 219 and House Bill 618, which converted the current Charter Schools Advisory Board into the Charter Schools Review Board. House Bill 618, now law due to a veto override, gives the new review board the authority to approve charters, a role previously held by the State Board of Education.
Cotham was presented with her Champion for Charter Schools Award on July 10 at the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools (NCAPCS) 2023 Annual Conference in Cherokee.
“Representative Cotham filters legislative decisions through her motto of ‘Kids First,’” said NCAPCS Executive Director Rhonda Dillingham in her nomination of Cotham to the National Alliance. “Being the mother of two and a former schoolteacher shapes her perspective. A true Changemaker, Representative Cotham is a fierce defender of parental choice and North Carolina’s public charter schools.”
In her acceptance speech at the NCAPCS Conference reception, Cotham said, “This is personal to me with education. I am a mom of two boys. Education is not one-size-fits-all. It’s absolutely not.
“It’s standing on those principles and again, about putting kids first,” said Cotham. ”That’s what you do every day. That’s why you’re here, that is your passion. For all the educators, for all the staff, thank you so much for what you do for children all around North Carolina and in this country.”
On Aug. 15, Dillingham presented Torbett with his award at a private ceremony in his Legislative Office.
“Rep. Torbett, as chairman of the House K-12 Education Committee, your sponsorship and defense of the Charter School Omnibus bill is evidence of your continued support of North Carolina’s public charter schools,” said Dillingham. “In addition, we appreciate your stewardship of pro-charter causes through your roles as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee on Education and vice chair of the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee.”
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper had vetoed House Bill 219, the Charter School Omnibus bill. The veto was one of six overridden by the General Assembly on Aug. 16 and the bill is now law.
“I am both honored and humbled to be selected for this award,” Torbett said when receiving the award, adding he was sorry to have missed the festivities in Cherokee and that legislative matters kept him in Raleigh.
“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,” said Torbett. “My focus is and will continue to be on our children succeeding and allowing parents a choice in their children’s education.”
In 2011, the cap on the number of public charter schools was lifted, and the number of charter schools has more than doubled since then, going from 100 schools in 2011 to 206 as of the 2022-23 school year.
According to a presentation given to the State Board of Education this past April, as of Dec. 1, 2022, there were more than 137,500 students enrolled in one of North Carolina’s public charter schools. That figure represents just over 9% of the K-12 student population.
Self-reported data from the state’s public charter schools showed that 85% of those schools had a waitlist totaling more than 77,000 students.
The report also showed charter schools had surpassed local districts in the percentage of black students enrolled 26.24% to 24.61%, respectively.