Legislative Watch

The unknown costs of charters

Legislation proposing to open up the floodgates for charter schools in North Carolina is swiftly moving toward passage, despite the lack of a cost estimate for the potentially seismic shift in public education.

Senate Bill 8, if it passes both houses, would remove a 100-school cap the state has on charter schools and establish a new committee overseeing the charters separate from the state Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction.

The potential cost of allowing unlimited numbers of charter schools, which operate on public dollars but are run as non-profits, isn’t known. Public charter schools also draw down dollars that school districts receive.

The pending legislation, which was introduced by state Sen. Richard Stevens (R-Wake) and has largely GOP support, doesn’t have a fiscal note. Fiscal notes are generally included with pieces of major legislation to let legislators know what the cost or savings of a program could be to the state. The lack of a fiscal note in this case comes as House and Senate members are working on a balancing a state budget with a $2.4 billion hole that needs to be filled.

Fiscal research staff said Thursday that requests for fiscal notes from legislators are confidential, and could not say if they’re working on a fiscal note for the charter schools or if they’d even been asked.

The bill has already passed the Senate and is now in the hands of House members.

Supporters of charter schools, which are funded with the taxpayer dollars that a local school district would otherwise get to educate a student, say the schools allow for innovative ways to teach outside the confines of the red tape found in traditional public schools.

Opponents of the pending legislation say that may be true anecdotally, with many charter schools succeed in reaching high-risk populations. But the lack of financial and educational oversight puts children at risk of ending up under-performing schools. Charter schools also don’t have to provide transportation or federally-funded free or reduced lunches for impoverished students, opponents say. Without those two things, some charters schools could effectively screen out low-income students who need those lunches and transportation in order to attend school.

“Why are we in such a hurry to do something that’s going to wreck public schools in this state as we know them?,” asked state Rep. Marvin Lucas (D-Cumberland). “We have a moral and constitutional responsibility to do well by all of the students of this state.”

Lucas and other House Democrats held a press conference today railing against the legislation, saying it would create separate and unequal systems of educating children.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education will meet at 4 p.m. Monday to talk about the bill.

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