Charter schools are taking money away from NC school districts, study says

Charter schools in North Carolina are taking money away from traditional public schools and reducing what services those school districts can provide to their students, according to a new research paper co-authored by a Duke University professor.

The paper, released in December, found that charter schools had “significant negative fiscal” effects on Durham Public Schools, the Orange County school system and four other North Carolina districts studied in the report. In the case of Durham, the study found that charter schools are creating a fiscal burden for the district between $500 and $700 per student.

“(North Carolina) is imposing additional costs on local districts by authorizing charter schools,” Duke University professor Helen Ladd and University of Rochester professor John Singleton wrote in the study. “As we have shown, the negative financial impacts are large, particularly in the urban and densely populated district of Durham but also in some of the non-urban counties as well.

“Moreover, the continued expansion of charter schools in non-urban districts is likely to impose an increasingly large fiscal burden over time.”

Duke University professor Helen Ladd

Charter school supporters say the new study is divisive at a time when both branches of public schools should be trying to work together.

“These types of studies drive a wedge between districts and charters, further discouraging them from collaborating with one another,” said Terry Stoops, vice president for research for the John Locke Foundation. “If we’re going to collaborate, we have to stop pointing fingers at each other about who is getting what.”

Stoops is handling communications for a new charter school near Fuquay-Varina that will be directed by his wife.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. There are 173 charter schools in the state. The number has gone up since state lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap in 2011.

“The outflow of students that this study examined is due to one thing: families not being satisfied with the schools that public school districts have assigned them to,” Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association For Public Charter Schools, said in a statement. “Here’s a simple solution: meet students’ needs by running better schools.”

Charter schools get money based on the number of students they have but don’t receive funding to build facilities. Supporters have talked about trying to increase funding for charter schools.

But critics of charters say they take needed money away from traditional public schools.

For the study, the authors wanted to examine urban and nonurban districts that still have costs they must pay for when students leave for charter schools. The authors picked six districts that have seen rapid enrollment growth among charter students: Buncombe, Cabarrus, Durham, Iredell-Statesville, Orange and Union counties.

The study found the greatest impact of charters was on Durham, where 15 percent of the county’s public school students attend charter schools. Under what Ladd called the most reasonable scenario, the study found that charter schools were requiring the Durham school system to reduce services for each public school student by between $500 and $700.

Charter schools “may expand choice for some students while imposing costs on taxpayers and students that remain in district schools,” according to the study.

“The main takeaway is that there are some fiscal costs associated with these charters,” Ladd said in an interview. “Policymakers should probably pay attention to that so when local school board members complain, they have legitimate reasons to complain.”

Ladd also co-authored a study in 2015 that found that North Carolina charter schools were helping to increase school segregation. That study was also criticized by charter school supporters.

Dillingham called it unfair to say that charter schools are a fiscal burden for Durham. She said Durham school officials can learn lessons from charter school operators who make do with less because charters don’t get funding for facilities or food.

The study found smaller but what it still called significant negative fiscal effects on the five other districts examined. In the case of Orange County schools, Ladd said it’s reasonable to say that charter schools have had a negative fiscal impact of between $150 and $250 per student.

“The loss of those students has a direct impact on our school system,” said Stephen Halkiotis, chairman of the Orange County school board. “It has an impact on the level of money that we receive from the state and money that we receive from county commissioners. To say that it doesn’t have an impact is wrong. But I fully recognize that these folks have a right to do what they want.”

The study says that state leaders may want to consider providing transitional aid to smooth or mitigate the revenue losses for school districts as charter schools continue to expand.

Stoops of the Locke Foundation said the six districts don’t need transitional aid because they haven’t been harmed academically by charters. He pointed to how those districts have seen gains the past few years on state test scores and high school graduation rates.

Dillingham said the idea of providing transitional aid doesn’t pass the common sense test.

“Maybe it’s my working-class background showing again, but I don’t think the district schools should be given money for students who aren’t in attendance,” she said. “That’s like requiring me to pay Food Lion for groceries I didn’t get because I’ve decided to shop at Harris Teeter instead.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui