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Senators sneak bill that diverts money intended for traditional public schools to charters

If you thought the dust had settled in Raleigh now that lawmakers have agreed on a final budget for 2015-17, think again—late Monday afternoon, Senate lawmakers gutted a House bill and inserted language that would divert money intended for use at traditional public schools over to charter schools.

Sen. Chad Barefoot spoke in support of the measure, arguing that public school money should follow a child, wherever he or she attends school. But Katherine Joyce, a lobbyist for the North Carolina School Administrators Association, said the changes will “have a significant, negative impact on your school districts.”

“This is making lots of changes in the delicate balance between funding for your public schools and funding for your charter students,” Joyce said. “Your LEAs will be strongly opposed to it.”

Many Senators appeared to be taken surprise by the move. A similar version of the bill was introduced back in March, which passed the Senate but stalled in the House.

Currently public and charter schools all share per pupil funding given to school districts by the state. But it’s possible for districts to carve out certain funding streams to keep within traditional public schools—which includes sales tax revenue. The proposed charter school funding change would no longer allow that practice of reserving sales tax revenue for traditional public schools..

The funding change for charter schools would have additional impacts, some of which include:

  • Public schools would have to share federal monies with charters that support nutrition and transportation programs—even though charter schools are not required to offer students lunch or transportation.
  • If a district has a supplemental property tax intended for public schools, those funds would have to follow a child—even if he or she attends a charter school outside of the taxing district.
  • Districts may have to separately designate gifts and grants in order to keep them within the traditional system.
  • Federal appropriations made to school districts would have to be equally shared with charter schools.

Back in May, I talked with Guilford County Schools’ Chief of Staff, Nora Carr, about the proposed measure, as it stood in HB 456.

Tillman acknowledged that with his proposed measure, districts would have to separately designate those gifts, grants or reimbursements in order to keep them with traditional public schools—and that practice, says Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr, is what’s actually calling into question the issue of fairness.

“The thought of trying to add yet another level of paperwork [to earmark restricted funds], at a time when we’re cutting staff right and left because of other legislative actions going on,” said Carr, “and to paint this as fairness is just really misleading.”

Carr explained that, for example, Medicaid reimbursements for exceptional children (EC) by and large should go to traditional public schools, which serve the lion’s share of that student population. In order to make sure the reimbursements are directed to the schools serving EC students, the district would have to create yet another separate fund, creating more bureaucracy when the district is already dealing with very tight resources.

It’s important to note that the latest version of the bill may exclude Medicaid reimbursements, allowing those to stay with traditional public schools by default—but the language isn’t totally clear, so that’s a provision worth tracking.

And grants, as Carr noted back in May, are often sought out for specific activities at traditional public schools during a time of waning revenues. Having to then share the grant awards with charters who did not seek those funds would be unfair, said Carr.

Read the latest version of the charter school funding bill here, and a bill summary written by legislative staff here. The bill is expected to be on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, then, if approved, on to the House for a concurrence vote.

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