Charter schools protest North Carolina budget law

Legislators say the measure puts the state in compliance with court rulings.

Staff WriterAugust 8, 2010 

Charter school advocates are criticizing a special provision in the state budget that will limit the money charters get from local school districts.

The budget provision responds to state Appeals Court rulings in 2008 and 2009 that said the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education had wrongfully withheld money from charter schools in its district. The 2009 decision had other school districts scrambling to figure out how much they owed their local charter schools.

Richard Vinroot, a Charlotte lawyer and former Republican candidate for governor who won those Appeals Court cases, said the budget provision undermines those rulings and gives districts permission to withhold money that should go to charters.

Leanne Winner, lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association, said the changes make clear legislators' intent on charter school funding. The court decisions said districts should set up separate accounts for money that charters shouldn't share, such as money for preschool programs that charters don't offer, she said.

Without the budget provision, Winner said, "the charters in most instances would have received more per pupil than the traditional public schools because of early childhood money."

Charters are public schools that operate without some of the restrictions placed on traditional public schools. Charter schools have complained for years about funding policies they say are unfair.

The lawsuits against Charlotte-Mecklenburg said the district was not complying with a state law that said charters should get a fair share of money for students. Specifically, the suit said chartersweren't getting enough from an account called the "local current expense fund." Districts put county money into those funds, along with money from grants, for preschools and special local programs.

In some cases, the Appeals Court judges reasoned, the charters should have received a share of money earmarked for a special program because it was not placed in an account separate from the local current expense fund.

In the 2009 decision, the judges wrote, "If donations or other moneys are intended for special programs, they should be held in a special fund. Because Defendants have held these moneys in their local current expense fund, they are required to share these moneys with Plaintiffs."

The new budget provision allows districts to separate from the expense fund gifts and grants that come with restrictions on spending, money for preschool programs, federal money that goes directly to the districts, and other revenue.

Vinroot, who founded a Charlotte charter school, said the provision moves the scales further out of balance, to charter schools' detriment. "It gives blanket authority to school systems to play with their current expense funds," he said. There's no way to know how much charters will lose, he said.

Todd Ziebarth, vice president of state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the new provision would make it hard for the state to convince reviewers of North Carolina's application for a $400 million federal education grant that the state creates an environment that allows charters to succeed.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a fan of charter schools. Among many other questions on the federal Race to the Top application is how states foster and support innovative schools.

Ziebarth said the budget provision "shows a blind hostility to charter schools that kind of amazes me."

Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat and an education budget writer, said the provision has nothing to do with disliking charters, but with making the law match the court opinion.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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