RALEIGH — In an effort to alleviate Democrats’ concerns over Senate Bill 8 — No Cap on Charter Schools — Republicans have offered to change charter school funding, set minimum enrollment requirements, and limit the number of new charters than can open per year. Dissatisfied, Democrats have proposed an alternative bill.
At a press conference March 7, Democrats complained that S.B. 8 takes too much money from traditional public schools and doesn’t provide enough oversight of charter schools.
Superintendent of Durham Public Schools Eric Becoats said the bill would transfer $10.3 million from traditional public schools in his district to charter schools. State Superintendent June Atkinson said the bill would allow “fly-by-night institutions” to start charter schools and that the State Board of Education needs to keep the expansion of charters “under the microscope.”
As an alternative to S.B. 8, Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, offered House Bill 247 — Enhance Charter School Accountability. While still eliminating the state’s cap on charter schools, the bill would impose higher academic standards on charters and more stringent certification requirements on their teachers. It also would require charters either to provide transportation and free and reduced lunches or risk losing funding.
At a House Environment Committee meeting March 8, Republicans offered an amended version of S.B. 8.
In it, they compromised by requiring charters to serve at least 50 students. Republicans initially had tried to remove the minimum enrollment requirement altogether; Democrats feared that would allow homeschoolers to form charters and get taxpayer money. A second compromise limits the number of new charters to 50 per year. And perhaps in its most important clarification, the new version of the bill says district schools will not have to share private donations, federal grants, or federal appropriations with charters. Nor will they have to share special funds or “band candy money” raised by booster clubs or athletic events.
Democrats said the updated bill was a step in the right direction, but didn’t go far enough. Many complained that the bill would transfer transportation, nutrition, and early childhood education funds from district schools to charter schools that don’t provide the programs.
But district schools always have been required to share these funds, said bill sponsor Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake. A 15-year-old state law says school districts must give charter schools a portion of all of the money in their general operating budget, which includes money districts use for transportation, nutrition, and early childhood education. The N.C. Court of Appeals upheld the law two years ago.
Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Madison, suggested changing the law to allow school districts to keep money used for transportation, nutrition, and early childhood education in separate fund, so it wouldn’t have to be shared.
Rapp is missing the point, said Richard Vinroot, a Charlotte lawyer who sits on the board of Sugar Creek Charter School and who sued the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education for withholding those very funds.
School districts are allotted a certain amount of money for schools to operate on each year, and charter schools are entitled to a portion of it, period, Vinroot said. It doesn’t matter what programs they use them on.
“When you add up all of the funds, traditional schools in our district get a little more than $2,000 a year per student,” Vinroot said. “Our schools get $1,200 per student.”
Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said the difference reflects a gap in federal funding, and the fact that charter schools receive no capital (building) funds from counties.
If S.B. 8 becomes law, Sugar Creek will receive $1,700 per student, Vinroot said.
Under Glazier’s bill, H.B. 247, the independent Charter School Commission created by S.B. 8 would become nothing more than an advisory committee to the State Board of Education. The commission could make recommendations to the board and could not make decisions about charter schools, as S.B. 8 would allow. (Under S.B. 8, a decision of the commission could be overturned by a 75-percent majority vote of the board.)
Glazier said the 75 percent veto was impractical and that an independent commission was unconstitutional.
Stoops countered that almost every vote the board has taken has been unanimous and that it would not be difficult for them to overturn a decision they thought unreasonable by the commission.
Discrimination and segregation
Glazier also said his bill would stop charters from discriminating against children on the basis of athletic ability, disability, race, gender, religion, etc.
He could not cite any specific examples of this happening, but encouraged reporters at the press conference Monday to “look at the data on the types of charters that have existed or have been requested and see whether or not there has been a determination of pre-selection.”
Glazier said his bill would not bar single-race or single-gender schools, but would require that charters to be “transparent” by making clear in their mission statement what their target population is.
Stoops said that while predominantly white and predominantly black schools exist, it is impossible for charter schools to discriminate against any applicant as they are selected by lottery. If more of one race than another ends up in one school, it is because the majority of the applicants were of that particular race.
When interviewed, most black parents say they prefer charter schools with high percentages of black students, Stoops said.
“You have a white guy like Rick Glazier saying ‘it’s a shame this school is predominantly black,’ but you talk to the parents and they say ‘this is the greatest thing that ever happened to us,’” he said.
Christopher Hill of the N.C. Justice Center said some schools discriminate based not on race, but academic ability. He pointed to Raleigh Charter High School as an example. The admissions page of its website states:
“Applicants must be ready for Algebra I or a higher mathematics course in the ninth grade.”
The original purpose of charter schools was to prepare at-risk students for college, Hill said. “You are not at-risk if you can pass Algebra 1.”
On the other hand, Vinroot said Sugar Creek Charter School serves 800 at-risk, minority children from the poorest communities of Charlotte. Their test scores are twice as high as any comparable school in the city, he said.
“We’re in an old K-Mart building two blocks from a fancy $25 million elementary school,” Vinroot added. “They have a half-empty school, we have 300 on a waiting list.”
The N.C. Department of Instruction’s 2009 Profile Report shows charter schools enroll a greater percentage of black students than traditional schools do. They also enroll a greater percentage of learning-disabled and speech-impaired children.
Baker Mitchell, founder of Charter Day School in Leland, and a John Locke Foundation board member, said the report proves that black and disabled students “are trying to escape” traditional schools.
“Their escape attempts should not be impeded by either incompetence or timidity,” Mitchell said. “Nor should these children be treated as second-class students by having to survive on less funding after their escape.”
Durham Superintendent Becoats suggested a countywide cap on charters. Durham already has seven charter schools, which serve 8.8 percent of the district’s students.
Stoops said Becoats is afraid of losing market share to charter schools and is “trying to do everything in his power to stop that from happening.”
The seven existing charter schools in Durham can’t keep up with demand, Stoops said. “They could open 11 more charters and not be able to meet the demand, because people want to get out of Durham public schools as fast as possible.”
Democrats have until noon Thursday to submit amendments to S.B. 8. The House Education Committee is scheduled to vote on it Tuesday, March 15.
Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.