Senate OKs bill that allows charter schools to get funds for services they may not provide

Senate OKs bill that allows charter schools to get funds for services they may not provide

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Senate lawmakers approved a bill Monday evening that would allow charter schools to receive more tax dollars and private grants than to which they are currently entitled—and some of that money could be for services that charter schools may not be providing to students.

“What we are effectively [doing] is taking our public school kids’ …. lunch money,” said Sen. Josh Stein (D-Wake), “but there’s no obligation on any charter school to feed any children.”

Stein objected to a provision in the proposed legislation that would enable charter schools, which are public but not subject to the same curricular standards or oversight rules as traditional public schools, to share in the funds reimbursed to local public schools for their support of the federal school lunch program.

Charter schools are not required by the state to offer students lunch, unlike traditional public schools which must do so according to the law. Stein’s amendment, which would have excluded federal school lunch reimbursement monies from charter schools’ coffers was defeated on the Senate floor prior to the bill’s passage.

School lunch reimbursement funds wouldn’t be the only additional dollars that charter schools could share in, if the proposal becomes law.

Federal appropriations for programs that charters may not provide and gifts and grants specifically targeted toward traditional public schools that support innovative methods to boost student achievement could all be up for grabs by charter schools, if House lawmakers concur with the Senate’s changes to H539.

Charter school advocates say changes should be made to how charter schools are funded because they don’t get their fair share.

“The money should follow the child,” said Sen. Chad Barefoot, talking about one provision of the House bill he presented to Senate Finance members last week—which came as a surprise to many—that previously dealt with school playgrounds, but was gutted and jammed with language that would change the way charter schools are funded.

Last week’s version of the bill would have also required local school districts to share supplemental property tax revenue with charter schools outside of the taxing jurisdiction and share fees for before- and after-school programs run by local public schools—but Sen. Tillman ran an amendment striking those monies from those to be shared with charter schools Monday night.

Sen. Stein told Sen. Tillman he’d be all for local public schools sharing the reimbursements the federal government pays to local public schools for indirect costs they incur participating in the federal school lunch program—like facility fees, heating and air conditioning, staff, etc. —if Tillman would offer up a provision to require all charter schools to provide school lunch.

“No, you can’t get there till you get some funds to work with,” said Tillman. “They’ve got to have planning money…you can’t do that out of thin air.”

Sen. Ron Rabin (R-Harnett, Johnston, Lee), who supported the notion that charter schools should be able to share in the funds intended to support the federal school lunch program, asked if school lunches at local public schools would “get any smaller” thanks to divvying up that pot of funds with charters.

“Is any food being taken from any child’s mouth?” said Sen. Rabin.

“Almost all of the nutrition programs that I’m aware of, particularly in my district, are operating in the red,” said Sen. Angela Bryant (D-Rocky Mount).

“In fact, they struggle to operate with the federal monies that they have in terms of staff, overhead, food, etc. We fight with them all the time about selling certain unhealthy foods and wanting to make money by making nutritional programs work. So yes, you’ll be taking food out of the mouths of children in public schools …to a charter school that is not providing food—and that is wrong,” said Bryant.

Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) warned his colleagues that politics aside, the provisions in the bill would likely touch off a round of lawsuits.

“The language in this bill needs a closer look,” said Jackson. “Numerous sections are unclear. In light of how highly litigated this area has been, we should know better than to rush this at the last minute.”

The bill’s 25-19 vote in its favor was a close one. The bill may win concurrence in the state House as early as this afternoon.

For more background on H539, which changes how charter schools are funded, see my story Bill sets up charter schools to receive funds for services they don’t provide

Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com

Twitter: @LindsayWagnerNC