News: CJ Exclusives

Charter Schools Seeking Lottery Funds

NC SELF seeks to amend lottery law to allow funding for charter schools

The North Carolina lottery is expected to provide $425 million a year in new funding for public schools and universities. More than 30,000 public school students, however, might have been left out of the equation. A new organization of charter-school supporters says their schools should be included in the law, and they hope to amend it in time for the first payout.

North Carolina Students for Equitable Lottery Funding conducted a series of press conferences across the state in January announcing the formation of the group and its agenda. NC SELF officials said that although charter schools are defined as public schools receiving state and local funding, they were left out of the formula for allocating lottery proceeds. The organization’s sole mission is to have the oversight corrected by the General Assembly so that charter schools will also receive a share of the lottery money — about $100 per student, according to their calculations.

Thomas Vass, chairman of NC SELF’s executive committee, told reporters that efforts to address the lottery bill during the session were not effective. “There was some attempt made by charter schools to influence the legislation,” he said, “but the way it was passed made it difficult to know the final form.” Some legislators have expressed surprise that charters were not included, which gives charter-school proponents hope for an easy amendment.

Funding for construction is a central issue, said Roger Gerber, director of communications for the League of Charter Schools, the sponsoring organization for NC SELF. He said the original 1996 legislation authorizing charter schools specified that they would not receive capital funds from the state, and the local governments were forbidden to include charter schools in bond issues. Court cases established charter schools’ access to local tax revenues, but the new lottery allocates 40 percent to construction, a category shut off from charter schools.
“I think the whole thing stems from concern that county commissions would protest having to build a new school which was chartered by the state, not the county, and which would not be under the county’s control,” he said. While some schools are able to save for buildings from county funding, many can’t. The extra funding from the lottery, even as little as $100, would make a difference for many schools.

“Any building or facility has to come out of the regular allotment, state or local, or else be made up with private funds or financing,” said Ken Templeton, headmaster of Union Academy in Monroe. Sometimes that means choosing between maintenance and materials. “Whether this is a critical source of funds depends on how well you prepare in spending money. We can’t count on lottery funds, so we don’t plan on it. But there are things you can’t have; if the change comes through, we will probably use the money for more instructional material. To add a second textbook to a language course, for example, costs about $30 per student; you can use up funding in a hurry.”

Templeton’s school has benefited from a local foundation that was set up to provide building funds for the charter school; the academy leases the buildings from the foundation.

“We leased from the public school system for the first few years, and paid a tremendous amount of money,” he said. “Now we lease from the foundation, but we pay less and they help us out.”

Leases can be paid from the state funds, but arrangements can be a significant weight on the budget. Raleigh Charter High School Principal Thomas Humble said that his school pays about $600,000 per year for its facility, nearly one-fifth of its annual budget. He hopes to move to a larger campus when the lease expires in 2010.

But designating funds for class-size reduction is also problematic, Gerber said. Some schools don’t have the elementary grades specified, and charters’ independence means class-size targets are meaningless.

“For example, maybe you already have small classes — many charters do — but maybe you make larger classes work, too,” he said. “Maybe you decide to spend and hire a top-flight physics teacher and put more students in that class, rather than hire two teachers [who aren’t as qualified] but allow smaller class sizes.”

For this reason, charter-school advocates suggest the General Assembly decide on a percentage — 2 percent would reflect the proportion of charter-school enrollment within the public school system — and pass that to charter schools before designating how it should be spent.

Gerber and Vass both point out confusion over the nature of charter schools, and the need to better educate the public and officials. While the law defines them as public schools and allocates public funds to them, day-to-day operation and control is vested in a local nonprofit board reporting to the state rather than to local authorities. They are granted more flexibility in methodology, staffing, and how their funds are spent, and proponents say this flexibility is the most important part of the concept. But the greater independence should not overshadow the basic truth that charter schools are public schools, too.

Some non=public funding is possible, but the amount varies from school to school. Humble said that Raleigh Charter High has PTA-style fund-raisers but relies almost wholly on tax funding. Pam Seymour, a founding board member of Casa Esperanza Montessori Charter School in North Raleigh, said they do “quite a bit of outside fund-raising” to support the special needs of their school; Montessori training can cost up to $10,000 per teacher, and Casa Esperanza places two instructors in every classroom to support its bilingual instructional program. Union Academy has its foundation, and it expects each family to provide at least 60 hours per year as school volunteers, a requirement written into their charter.

“They keep the school going,” said Mary Rymer, one of Union’s parent volunteer coordinator. A part-time member of the school staff as well as a parent, she contributes her unpaid 60 hours like any other family.

While the legislature is out of session, NC SELF hopes to complete a public relations blitz, including seminars for local officials, a media campaign to educate the public, and a speaker’s bureau for civic organizations. NC SELF officials think that the hurried passage of the lottery law might make legislators open to amendments when they reconvene.

Gerber said that he is optimistic about the group’s goals and that it’s a simple issue of fairness. “If you’re going to have an education lottery to provide funds for K-12 education, then charter schools should get their share, without strings attached. That was the intent of the charter school program to begin with — to operate without so many strings.”

Hal Young is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.