Charter schools could get more money if NC lawmakers overhaul K-12 funding system

Charter school supporters lobbied state lawmakers Thursday for more money at a time when charter schools and traditional public schools are arguing with each over about how much funding they receive.

School choice advocates told state legislators that charter school students aren’t being funded fairly compared to students in traditional public schools, especially when it comes to getting money for buildings. Supporters of these non-traditional schools hope to win over a state legislative task force that is considering whether to recommend overhauling the way North Carolina distributes more than $9 billion a year in state K-12 education funding.

“Charter schools are public schools, they’re not private schools,” said Steven Walker, vice chairman of the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board, a group that helps monitor the state’s 173 charter schools. “If they’re public schools, then they should be funded in the same manner as a traditional public school. A student at a charter school is not worth less than a student at a traditional public school.”

But any changes in state funding would likely draw opposition from traditional public schools. This tension was acknowledged Thursday by Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican and charter school supporter.

“When I talk to charter people, they say, ‘Our funding is not equal,’ ” Tillman said. “When I talk to the public schools, they say, ‘We’re being killed because our money is going to the charter schools.’ Who’s right?”

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow. For instance, charter schools don’t have to offer meals or transportation, aren’t subject to the state law that sets when the school year can begin and end and aren’t required to have all their teachers be licensed.

Charter schools have undergone rapid growth since state lawmakers voted in 2011 to remove the state limit of 100 charter schools. North Carolina has grown from 98 charter schools and more than 38,000 students in 2010 to 173 schools and 100,632 students this school year. Charters account for 6.5 percent of the state’s 1.5 million public school students.

Charter schools are receiving $581 million in state money this school year. But Walker and Gregg Sinders, state director of TeamCFA, a group tied to wealthy political donor John Bryan that has 13 charter schools in North Carolina, complained Thursday that some money that goes to traditional public schools isn’t given to charter schools.

In particular, charter schools don’t receive any local or state money for school facilities. Sinders cited how 20 percent of the budget for the new Pine Springs Preparatory Academy in Holly Springs is going toward paying for the new facility.

“Those are dollars that don’t go to the scholars,” Sinders said.

Sinders and Walker said state lawmakers should allow local county boards of commissioners, who are responsible for providing money for building and renovating traditional public schools, to fund facilities for charter schools.

Sinders said charter schools should also join traditional public schools in getting access to state money set aside for school facilities.

Walker also suggested lawmakers consider requiring school districts to share more of the local money they receive with charter schools.

While charter schools want more money, 35 have closed over the years for financial reasons. In some cases, those schools overestimated the number of students they’d have, which affected how much state funding they received.

“Charter schools, some do an excellent job and some tend to be a little optimistic when they’re providing this preliminary projection, which does create an issue with our projections,” said Alexis Schauss, director of school business at the state Department of Public Instruction.

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