Parents, school leaders, legislators push to block controversial charter funding bill

By: - June 9, 2016 2:54 pm

charterschools-300x202House Bill 539 began innocuously enough last year, taking up public access to school playgrounds, Sherrie Cannoy points out.

Cannoy, a parent with a daughter in the Randolph County public school system, notes it’s this version that passed the N.C. House unanimously last year.

The dramatically Senate-revamped version that landed in the House Education Committee Thursday bore no resemblance, instead attempting to force traditional public schools to share more of their funds with charter schools.

“Maybe you could put the initials ‘b.s.’ in the bill name,” cracked Cannoy. “For bill substitute of course.”

Cannoy was one of many members of the public, stakeholders and lawmakers who urged House committee members to vote down the legislation or postpone any further discussion of the controversial charter funding bill until next year’s long session of the General Assembly.

“We do not need to be taking this bill up in the short session,” said Rep. James Langdon, a Republican from Johnston County and a retired educator. “I think it’s shaky. The decision that we’re making affects a lot of things.”

“This bill is not ready for live time,” added Rep. Chris Whitmire, a Republican representing counties in western North Carolina.

It’s unclear when or even if committee members will take a vote on the Senate version, which emerged late in the session last year with the support of influential Senate Republican Jerry Tillman, an outspoken critic of public schools who’s spoken numerous times in support of charters.

Among its provisions, Tillman’s rewrite would require public school systems to share more pots of money with local charters, including sales tax revenues, gifts and grants and funds received for “indirect” costs.

For example, public school systems receive federal grants to help pay the “indirect” bills for school meals, meaning costs not directly associated with the food and its preparation. That could include boilers and refrigerators for the food. In some larger school systems, it can cost millions, advocates say.

But Tillman’s bill would force schools to share these coffers, even though many charter schools do not provide school lunches. Although the numbers are unclear, Tillman estimated last year that the move would shift about $11 million statewide from traditional public schools to charters.

“What is the logic in providing charter schools funding for something they have no association with and on which they have expended no effort?” said Linda Welborn, a member of the Guilford County Board of Education who spoke in opposition to the bill Thursday.

The bill could also allow charters to collect damages from local school systems in the event they won a court fight with the system over funding.

Charters and traditional public schools have been clashing, sometimes in court, over school funding shares for years.  Advocacy groups urged legislators Thursday to give the stakeholders time to reach a compromise.

“We would like to work with you,” said Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the N.C. School Boards Association, which represents local boards of education at the legislature.

“We hope that you will not pass this bill this year. Give us some time to see if we can come up with a solution that works for both sides.”

“This bill is too controversial with too many unanswered questions to move it forward in the short session,” added Katherine Joyce, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators, an umbrella organization representing various school administrator groups at the legislature.

Bill supporters claim charter schools are not receiving their fair portion of local funding dollars, pointing out that a 2010 Democrat-backed amendment excluded the funds from being shared.

Rep. John Bradford III, R-Mecklenburg, said the bill addresses the “huge inequity” between traditional public school funding and public charter school funding, although a widely-circulated claim by charter backers that they only receive 75 percent of the funding traditional public schools receive was met with skepticism from many on hand.

Legislative staff told lawmakers they do not know where charter backers are deriving that number, suggesting instead that charters receive in the area of 85 to 90 percent of the funds usually granted to traditional public schools.

Rep. Larry Pittman, a Republican supporter from Cabarrus County, pointed out charter supporters aren’t asking for access to all of the pots of money that were denied them by that 2010 amendment, just a handful. Other sources—such as funding for pre-K programs, Junior ROTC, school rental fees and the “direct” costs of school lunch programs—would remain with traditional public schools.

“I think that’s a fair compromise,” said Pittman.

Bradford, meanwhile, rebuffed critics’ calls to delay consideration of the bill this year.

“Our kids don’t get that luxury,” said Bradford. “They keep getting older. They go to the next year. We have public charter schools saying they need the money now. All we’re doing is kicking the can down the road.”

Others argued that the bickering between traditional and charter public schools is largely driven by North Carolina’s limited spending on education over the years. The state’s national ranking for per-pupil spending in 2014-2015 lingered at a lowly 43rd in the nation, according to a recent report (page 55, figure H-11) from the National Education Association.

“This does not address the funding problems that all of our schools are facing,” said Matt Ellinwood, director of the Education & Law Project at the progressive N.C. Justice Center in Raleigh (Disclosure: The Justice Center is Policy Watch‘s parent nonprofit).

“Instead, it continues the troubling trend of pitting charters versus traditional schools for scarce funding.”

Lawmakers adjourned Thursday’s committee meeting with no clear direction for the bill going forward. We’ll stay tuned.

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.