One of the most controversial bills of the early 2011 state legislative session is a proposal advanced by legislative Republicans to dramatically loosen state regulations on charter schools. Unfortunately, rather than just promoting charters, the bill takes a number of steps that pose a real threat to traditional public schools.
Though there are several big controversies surrounding the legislation, the biggest one boils down to funding. Right now, local school districts get money for their traditional public schools from a variety of funding sources – many of which require the schools receiving the funds to provide certain programs (things like Head Start, More at Four, and Junior ROTC). These schools also receive lots of public funds to provide transportation as well as free and reduced price meals to kids who can’t afford them.
With the proposed law, however, these obligations will not apply to charters. The charters will get the money for these programs because they receive the same per student allotment as all traditional public schools, but they will be under no obligation to provide the services. And indeed, a high percentage of charters do not and will not provide them.
By dramatically expanding charters without addressing this glaring problem, the Senate bill is, in effect, imposing a funding cut of millions and millions of dollars per year on traditional schools. Essentially, the Senate bill would take money from programs that serve the state’s most disadvantaged students, and give that money to schools that often exclude those children.
The free- and reduced-price lunch and child-nutrition program is one of the most glaring examples. Many charter schools do not provide these programs (or meals of any kind), resulting in the exclusion of low-income students and increased racial segregation. To provide charter schools these funds while still allowing them to, in effect, discriminate against these students is unconscionable.
The proposed legislation would also make money available to charter schools from other inappropriate sources, including:
- Funds from private donors (even if the donors have specified those funds for a certain use and have earmarked them only for traditional schools).
- Funds for capital improvements and the construction of new schools, including money that comes from construction bonds approved by voters. The loss of these funds would significantly undermine the ability of districts with aging schools or with growing populations to provide adequate facilities for their students.
To make matters even worse, charter schools would get a dramatic increase in funding even if they added no more students. Traditional schools would have to teach the same number of students they have now, or even more as North Carolina’s school-aged population increases, with considerably less money.
Under current law, for instance, Durham Public Schools would pay approximately $9.5 million to charter schools next school year. If Senate Bill 8 passes, however, that number would jump to almost $20 million—an amount that would necessitate drastic cuts in the district’s traditional schools. And that assumes the charter schools serve the same percentage of the district’s students they serve now.
Finally, there is also the matter of governance. The legislation in question would establish a new unelected commission that would oversee charters with virtually no oversight from the Department of Public Instruction or even local school boards.
The Supreme Court of the United States observed in its landmark decision in the case of MIlliken v. Bradley that “[n]o single tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over public schools.” While most legislators would agree that local control of public schools is important, this bill would take all control over the creation of charter schools out of the hands of local officials and give it to an unelected state commission—while simultaneously undermining the financial structure of traditional schools which are under local control. The only reason to create such a commission is to push charter expansion at the fastest possible pace, regardless of the impact on traditional schools or North Carolina’s children.
There is too much at stake to rush forward to an explosion of charter schools at the expense of these fundamental democratic principles. Expanding the number of charters in the state is one thing, but taking all governance out of the hands of officials that are most clearly accountable to the students and families who attend North Carolina’s schools just does not add up. And cutting the financial legs out from under traditional schools during one of the most difficult budget times in decades is simply irresponsible.
As a result and not surprisingly, school boards across North Carolina have been advancing a resolution, sponsored by the North Carolina School Boards’ Association, calling on the General Assembly to reconsider the legislation and modify it to address a number of concerns.
Let’s hope lawmakers pay attention.
Matthew Ellinwood is a Policy Advocate at the Education and Law Project of the North Carolina Justice Center