Some say lifting cap on charter schools would be death knell for public schools

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 9, 2011

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — State lawmakers have tweaked legislation that would lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed, but opponents remain wary.
Backers of Senate Bill 8 say it would increase educational opportunities for children since charter schools are intended to provide innovative learning options, free from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools.
“We need to provide more options under the public education umbrella,” Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Reform in North Carolina, said. “Far too many families in our state and far too many families in Rowan-Salisbury have only one option.”
There are currently 99 charter schools in 47 of the state’s 100 counties.
Allison, who graduated from A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis, said the success that many of those charter schools are experiencing cannot be replicated because of the cap, and more than 20,000 students statewide are on waiting lists for charter schools.
“The vast majority of North Carolina does not have a charter school,” he said. “It’s not that public charter schools are more superior, but if we have more options than children have a better chance at getting a quality education.”
But opponents say the bill, which also seeks to clarify the current funding formula, could be detrimental to public school funding.
“I think this would pretty much be a dagger in the heart of public education,” Dr. Jim Emerson, chairman of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, said.
Food and transportation
Charter schools currently receive a per pupil allocation from local school districts.
The proposed legislation would also require local districts to share school nutrition, transportation and early childhood education money.
Earlier versions of the bill did not require charter schools to provide transportation or food services, but the current legislation includes provisions that address both.
It would require charter schools to create a plan to provide food for any student who lives in a household with an income below 185 percent of the federal poverty rate and transportation for any students who meet that criteria and live within three miles of the school.
According to data provided by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, 35 charter schools already provide free and reduced lunch programs.
But Joel Medley, the state’s interim charter schools director, said that number could be deceiving.
“Many charter schools feed kids every day but choose not to participate in the free and reduced lunch programs,” he said.
Medley said they often can’t afford to take part in the program because of regulations such as facility requirements. And, he said, many choose to use contract food providers.
Helen Nance, chief administrator and co-founder of Gray Stone Day School, said her school partners with Salisbury’s Mr. Gatti’s to provide meals three times a week and school clubs sell individually packaged items the remaining two days. And although the meals aren’t free of charge, Nance said no one goes hungry.
“We’ll always make sure somebody has a meal if they need one,” Nance said.
Thirty-five charter schools across the state currently provide transportation to and from school, according to data from the education department.
Medley said the actual number of charters providing transportation is actually higher, because data is only provided by charters that have their own buses and vans.
He said some charters use car pools, city bus lines and even ferry systems to get children to their schools each day.
“They have to be creative,” he said.
Gray Stone does not provide transportation because of its rural setting, but Nance said she works with parents to coordinate car pools.
Capital funding
The proposed legislation would also give counties an option to provide money for school construction.
“In the past, there has been no funding for capital projects and that has been a hindrance for charter schools,” Nance said. “Facilities is the hardest things for any school starting up.”
Nance said being able to use Pfeiffer University’s Harris building as a hub for the school allowed her to launch Gray Stone in 2002.
And her dream of a separate facility came true this year when the school moved into a 53,000-square-foot facility on land donated by Pfeiffer.
But Nance said getting there was tough. She pinched pennies and sought donations to build the $7 million building.
“I thought we could do a building in a couple of years, but it took forever,” she said.
Money talk
Tara Trexler, chief financial officer for the Rowan Salisbury School System, said the district provided charter schools with about $125,000 this year and that number could rise by more than $112,000 next year if Senate Bill 8 becomes law.
Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Rowan/Davie, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the legislation would provide a more equitable distribution of money.
“Everybody pays tax dollars, even people who send their children to charter schools,” he said.
Allison agrees that the bill would distribute funds more evenly.
“No one is looking to rob or take money from our traditional public schools,” he said. “But we are saying that we need to make sure our public schools are fairly funded and our charter schools are fairly funded because at the end the day they are both public schools.”
School board member Bryce Beard said charter schools should be dubbed “cherry picking schools,” because they receive funding from public schools without having to follow the same standards.
“They get all of the sweet and none of the bitter,” he said.
Failing without funds
Since the state’s charter school movement began in 1996, 33 charters have folded, at least 23 of which failed due to financial issues.
One local example is Rowan Academy.
When the school closed in January 2006, it was more than $200,000 in debt, according to Post archives.
The school, which opened in 1999, struggled financially for years before shutting down.
When the school shut down, state education officials told the Post it was doing well academically, but lack of building funds made it difficult to secure an inexpensive, centrally located building.
Allison said the bill’s additional allocation of dollars to charters would help others avoid Rowan Academy’s fate.
“The finances and the administrative end are very challenging and you have to be just as sharp there as you are in the classroom,” he said.
Diversity in charters
The N.C. Legislative Black Caucus voiced its opposition to the bill this week, saying it neglects the needs of minority students.
“We all believe in the same dream: quality public schools that serve all students, but the charter school bill is a nightmare for poor and minority students in North Carolina,” said Rep. Henry Michaux, D-Durham in a statement “(It) divides public education along racial and socio-economic lines, and would leave many kids behind.”
According to information provided by the state education department, about two-thirds of the charters consist of students predominately of the same race.
White students make up at least 75 percent of the student body at 47 charters and black students are the majority at about 21.
Allison said many public schools aren’t racially equal and he said it’s more important to hold schools accountable to success.
“I get that diversity is very important, but we should not major on diversity solely and minor on academics and performance,” he said. “Of all the charter school not one of them has been deemed ‘low performing,’ but 350 traditional schools have.”
Why more charters?
Nance said when she opened Gray Stone she never intended to compete with traditional public schools, instead her goal was to provide an option for students who wanted a more challenging curriculum. She said she’d like to see traditional and charter schools work together to figure out innovative ways to educate students.
Allison said he believes adding more charter schools throughout the state could spark “friendly competition.”
“Perhaps it will spur the sharing of best practices,” he said. “At the end of the day, regardless of what design or model of the school, we want to make sure our students have the best education they can possibly have.”
Brock said he would like to see more charter schools that cater to at-risk students. “We’ve got to make some changes and figure out how to get kids to like learning,” he said. “This can help create the best education system for our children.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.