While initial rulings in the Leandro case had nothing directly to do with charter schools, recent discussions are bringing the traditional public school alternative into the conversation. 

Terry Stoops is vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. Stoops says charter school leaders should know it’s possible that charter schools will be incorporated into recommendations forwarded to Judge David Lee, who’s overseeing the state’s compliance with Leandro

The Leandro case began in 1994, when five rural school districts sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise enough tax revenue locally to provide an education for their students on par with the schools in wealthier districts. A few years later, the state Supreme Court held that every North Carolina child has a right to “a sound, basic education” under the state constitution. In 2004, the court ruled the state failed to live up to the previous ruling. 

Since then, lawmakers and education stakeholders have disagreed about how to comply with the Leandro mandate, which says every classroom must be staffed with a competent, well-trained teacher, and every school must be staffed with a competent, well-trained principal. Leandro requires the state to identify resources needed to ensure all children — including at-risk students — have an equal opportunity to a sound, basic education.

Charter schools have so far not been part of the Leandro discussion.

Until now. 

In 2017, Gov. Roy Cooper formed the Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education. The idea was to brainstorm and to devise ways the state could comply with the Leandro mandate. The commission recently came forward with several draft recommendations, one directly relating to charter schools. The governor’s commission calls for the state to modify funding for charter schools. Instead of charter schools getting the same amount of money per student traditional public schools receive, money for new charter schools and enrollment increases could come from a direct state appropriation.

Some members of the commission say charter schools are draining money from traditional public schools. 

“Public charter schools were created to be laboratories of innovation to help improve public education and provide alternative learning environments for students,” the commission wrote in a report on the draft recommendations for school finance and resources.  

“Unfortunately, the expansion of charter schools has begun to place a financial and planning burden on traditional public schools.”

The commission recommends changing funding for new charter schools and enrollment increases. 

“We’re trying to talk about charter schools because they are in statute, they are public schools,” said Jim Deal, commission member and leader of the finance work group, as reported by EdNC. “But our comment here was really directed toward not reducing what goes to the traditional public schools to pay for support for charter schools.”

Helen Ladd, a commission member and Duke University professor of public policy and economics, said modifying funding for new charter schools and enrollment increases as a direct state appropriation could force the General Assembly to address the cost of charter schools. But, Ladd said, lawmakers may simply create one-off allotments for some schools. 

Stoops said the commission appears to assume that, because some research found charter schools had a fiscal impact on certain school districts, charters hurt all school districts across the state. 

“The only reason there is a fiscal effect on school districts is because parents are choosing to move their children to charter schools, and the money is following the kids,” Stoops said. “It’s not as if the mere presence of a charter school is damaging school district finances. It’s the fact that the kids are being moved from the district to the charter school, and the money is following.” 

Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association for Public Charter Schools, said the governor’s commission is treating charter schools as though they’re the ugly stepchildren of education. 

“Charter schools are part of the public school system, and if parents make the choice to enroll their children in a public charter school, then it only makes sense that the funding should follow the child,” Dillingham said. “Our state’s charter school students deserve the same funding as their district counterparts.”

Stoops said the commission’s recommendation for charter schools isn’t clearly defined.

“It’s not clear how it would work,” Stoops said. “It mentions for new charter schools and existing charter school growth, so is the idea that the districts would be held harmless for the enrollment growth? The mechanism that they envision is not something that is currently being used or considered in the U.S. state allotment systems.” 

Stoops said it’s odd the commission brought up charter schools in discussing Leandro, since the alternative education model hasn’t been part of the conversation. Charter school enrollment amounts to a mere 7% of the state’s student population, Stoops said. 

“Zeroing in on charter schools suggests that it’s on someone’s agenda rather than as a way to try to address the educational shortcomings identified in the Leandro case,” Stoops said.