News: CJ Exclusives

Senate Bill Would Restore Charter School Funding

Measure would stop school districts from blocking charters' access to some local public money

The Senate Education and Higher Education Committee on Tuesday took a step toward returning money to charter schools that got sidetracked when lawmakers changed the spending formula years ago.

Senate Bill 456, which could add about $11 million to charter schools statewide, is scheduled today for a Senate floor vote.

The funding formula was modified when Democrats ran the General Assembly under what is known as the “Hackney/Nesbitt amendment,” after its champions, former House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, and Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe. Republicans made a resumption of the funding a priority at the opening of the 2015 legislative session.

“It’s going to be a lot more money,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, sponsor of the bill. He said the bill undoes a previous law allowing local school systems to shield certain local expenses — such as reimbursements, fees, sales tax refunds, and trust funds — from calculations for charter schools.

“The money now has to go with the kids,” Tillman said, commenting on requiring per-pupil local money following kids who attend charter schools. “Where the kid goes, the money goes,” Tillman said.

Tillman said that the $11 million statewide would amount to $8 to $10 per student at each charter school.

Charter schools are public schools that operate with fewer regulations than traditional public schools. They have their own boards of directors, and operate independently of local school boards. While they get operating expense money from state and local governments, they don’t get local capital expense money to construct or renovate schools that traditional schools receive.

Three organizations supporting charter schools — the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, and the North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association — have pushed for the restored funding and set up a website — fairpublicfundingnc.org — to promote their cause.

The funding provision was rolled into a broad charter school modifications bill sponsored by Tillman.

Other modifications include allowing members of a school’s board of directors to reside outside the state, provided a majority of the board resides in North Carolina, increasing the minimum size for most charter schools from 65 students to 80 students, setting guidelines for renewing charters for established schools, requiring that charter schools adopt policies preventing nepotism, and requiring the State Board of Education to adopt rules providing for fast track replication of “high-quality charter schools.”

Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, said he had a couple of issues with the bill that he hopes to get ironed out before it is debated on the Senate floor.

Stein said he wants to get a better understanding on the allocation of local sales tax revenues called for in the bill. “I want to make sure that we’re not automatically advancing charter schools and expanding them when they don’t have a financial base from which to expand,” Stein said.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.