In North Carolina, state law empowers county commissions to oversee school facilities and the collection and appropriation of local tax dollars to school districts. Unlike other states, cities and towns in North Carolina have few direct responsibilities for the public schools in their jurisdiction. Traditionally, municipalities have undertaken infrastructure, zoning, and other planning functions that have a bearing on school buildings and student transportation. They also have assisted schools with policing, traffic management, and other school safety matters. Three recent developments, however, may lead some cities and towns to play a much greater role in school governance and funding — for better or worse.
The 2018 state budget included a provision that allows cities to “supplement funding for elementary and secondary public education that benefits the residents of the city.” This means that city councils will be allowed to allocate property tax and other unrestricted revenues to district, laboratory, charter, regional, and Innovative School District schools both within and outside their city limits.
While I applaud lawmakers for giving cities additional latitude in how they may allocate their existing pool of taxpayer money, I fear that some opportunistic city and town governments will use their new authority as a justification to raise taxes. Unless legislative leaders decide to repeal the law next year, taxpayers should be alert to the possibility that their elected officials will propose a for-the-children tax increase in their annual budget next year. After all, one of the most effective ways to sell a tax increase to voters is to claim that it will improve public schools.
Municipalities are also getting into the business of making and breaking charter schools.
In August, the Durham City Council used its existing authority to thwart the expansion of a popular public charter school in the county. The board of Excelsior Classical Academy asked the Durham City Council to sign off on their application for a revenue bond, which would have been used to purchase and upgrade its existing facility. While voting “yes” on education revenue bonds would have cost the city no money, the Durham City Council voted 5-2 against the measure anyway.
Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson explained, “Rather than acting as labs for innovation and exploration, I believe that charters are now becoming a mechanism by which public education in our state and our community is being threatened and being harmed.” Actually, the vote was a desperate and cynical ploy to defend the underperforming Durham Public Schools by publicly sticking it to an exemplary charter school. I worry that other fanatical city councils and town boards will follow Durham’s disgraceful lead.
Fortunately, not all municipalities are brazenly hostile to charter schools. Session Law 2018-3 allows four Mecklenburg County municipalities — Cornelius, Huntersville, Matthews, and Mint Hill — to undertake the charter school application process and, if successful, operate charter schools with their jurisdictions. It’s encouraging that some forward-thinking local government officials are trying to increase the options available for families. Nevertheless, there’s no guarantee that one or more of these municipalities will receive state approval to open a charter school.
Their most significant challenge is a statutory provision that allows municipal charter schools to give enrollment priority to residents of the city or town. Municipal applicants will need to convince both the Charter School Advisory Board and the N.C. State Board of Education that the schools will make a sincere effort to reach out to underrepresented families. If they are unable to do so, the application will be denied, and the applicants will be forced to reapply.
City and town leaders who are eager to get their municipality in the education business should exercise caution. Although it’s too early to say whether municipal involvement will be harmful or helpful, I suspect that even the most well-intentioned city and town leaders will eventually conclude that they should have stayed out of the mess in the first place.
Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president for research and director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation.