Lt. Governor’s aide peddles misinformation on NC charter school funding

Lt. Governor’s aide peddles misinformation on NC charter school funding

Imagine a family with twin boys: Charter Chad and Traditional Travis. Chad and Travis have generous parents who give each of them an allowance of $75 per week.

For Travis, however, $75 a week isn’t enough. He wants to do some things that Chad isn’t interested in doing, like running a pre-kindergarten program for the local neighborhood kids. So Travis gets a part-time job earning $25 per week.

A concerned neighbor, let’s call him Steven Walker, catches wind of this situation and cries foul. “This is unfair! All children should be treated the same, but Chad is only getting 75 percent of what Travis is getting.”

But Chad has also gotten a part-time job to supplement his allowance. Chad earns $35 per week on top of his $75 weekly allowance. This extra cash allows Chad to do some things that Travis can’t do, like buying books.

Do you find this situation unfair? If so, would you say that Chad, who has more money than Travis, is getting the short end of the stick? What would you say to Mr. Walker who – knowing that Chad earns more than Travis – is still claiming that Chad only gets 75 cents on every dollar that Travis gets?

The above scenario may be familiar to those who witnessed last week’s meeting of the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform. The Task Force, which is seeking to overhaul North Carolina’s school funding system, spent last Thursday’s meeting looking at charter school funding.

The Task Force invited Steven Walker, the General Counsel and Policy Director for Lt. Governor Dan Forest and the Vice Chair of the Charter School Advisory Board, to give his views on charter school finance. In his presentation, Walker told the Task Force that Charter Chad is being treated unfairly, even though Chad out-earns his traditional twin.

Let’s be clear with what the above hypothetical is really about. For years, North Carolina’s charter school advocates have been claiming that – when it comes to local funding – charter schools only receive about 75 cents for every dollar provided to traditional public schools. This “analysis” though is intentionally misleading. It compares the total “local” funding for traditional schools against the per-student county tax money transferred to charter schools.

But “local” funding includes more than just direct appropriations from county governments (the “allowance” in the above hypothetical). When a traditional school district sells tickets to a football game or rents out a facility to an outside group, that revenue is considered local funding. Districts may receive grants to run specific programs (such as pre-k) not offered in charter schools, or they might get donations from local foundations. Each of these revenue sources brings a school district’s local funding above the levels provided via direct appropriation from the county government.

Of course, charter schools can also supplement their local appropriation. They too can win grants for specific activities or benefit from donations from outside sources.

Any serious examination of local funding differences should compare the total amount of local funding available to charter schools and traditional schools. In September 2016, I wrote a report that did just that. The report found that local spending in charters exceeds traditional public schools by $142 per student. The idea that charters receive 75 cents on the dollar is a complete fiction.

These facts didn’t stop Mr. Walker from repeating the debunked claim in his presentation to the Task Force. While he admitted that some people dispute the number, he maintained his belief that – when it comes to local funding – charter schools are getting the short end of the stick.

The school funding Task Force has an incredibly difficult job. That job becomes increasingly difficult when presenters are peddling misinformation. Contrary to what Task Force members heard today, charter schools get more local funding than their traditional school counterparts. Proposals taking local funds from traditional schools and giving it to charters would simply exacerbate charters’ funding advantage. Mr. Walker should know better. And the Task Force deserves to know better, as well.

Thankfully, the Task Force did get good, accurate, useful information from the Department of Public Instruction’s Alexis Schauss. Her presentation and handouts clearly show that – when it comes to state funding – charters are funded on par with their traditional counterparts. The issue isn’t funding fairness, but funding adequacy. Both charter schools and traditional schools are being starved of resources by a General Assembly that has prioritized tax cuts for corporations and wealthy inidividuals over investing in a strong education system.

Charter school advocates such as Mr. Walker should recognize that his debunked statistics are counterproductive. False claims of unfair funding for charter schools simply create divisions and animosity. Instead, the charter community would be better served by highlighting our state’s shamefully low public school spending levels and calling for increased investment that will left all boats.

Kris Nordstrom is a Policy Analyst the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.