RALEIGH — Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, posed a question summing up the sometimes-tense relationship between charter schools and traditional public schools.
“When I talk to charter people, they say that funding is not equal,” Tillman said during a Thursday, Feb. 22, meeting of the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform. “When I talk to the public schools, they say they are being killed because their money is going to the charter schools. Who’s right?”
Alexis Schauss, director of school business at the Department of Public Instruction, didn’t offer a definitive answer.
“There are variations that I think could be critiqued on how we calculate it, but whether the access to the funds is available to the school districts and the charter schools, I would say that they do related to the state funds,” Schauss said.
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools, though they can provide greater flexibility in regard to hiring teachers and setting the academic calendar. Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools aren’t required to provide transportation or free or reduced lunches.
Schauss said charter schools are eligible for 98.7 percent of the state funds given to traditional public schools, but they aren’t eligible for grants for early college funds or school-based child and family support teams.
For the 2017-18 year, charter schools received $581 million from the state. State funding for charter schools is based on student enrollment. Each January, charter schools are instructed to give DPI estimates on how many student they think are going to enroll.
“The challenge is making sure we are getting the budgets in the right place and we have enough funds for the school districts and the charter schools to grow, and that we are not over budgeting the state,” Schauss said. “Charter schools, some do an excellent job but some tend to be a little optimistic when providing their preliminary projections, which does create an issue with our projections.”
Schauss said the budgeting process is further complicated by the growth of charter schools. Twenty years ago, DPI was budgeting for about 33 small schools. Now it’s budgeting for more than 170 charter schools.
“The average size of a school eight years ago was 400 students, the average size of a charter school now is over 600,” Schauss said. “We have 23 schools that are over a thousand students.”
Gregg Sinders, the North Carolina state director for TeamCFA, a national network of public charter schools, said charter and traditional public schools should talk about funding flexibility.
TeamCFA operates 19 charter schools; 13 in North Carolina.
“I truly believe dollars should follow the student,” Sinders said. “Public charter schools should be funded at the same level as traditional public schools.”
Neither Sinders nor Steven Walker, general counsel to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and vice chairman of the Charter Schools Advisory Board, think charter school funding should be a separate line-item in the state education budget.
“As a charter school operator, why do I want to come down here every year begging and fighting for a particular line item that I could win or lose on year to year?” Sinders asked.
Since charter schools are public schools, Walker said, they should be funded in the same manner as traditional public schools.
“You are going to have 173 charter schools coming to you during the budget process and fighting for money,” Walker said. “But if we do it where it is tied in with the overall K-12 education budget, then you are not going to have that.”
Currently, charter schools receive state funding directly from the General Assembly, but local funds go through the local school districts before they’re sent to charter schools. In the most recent task force meeting, presenters advocated funding charter schools via direct allotment, meaning charter schools would bypass the school system in getting local funding.
Walker and Sinders proposed allowing county commissioners the option to give charter schools capital funding for facilities. Sinders also suggested the state provide funds for charter schools just getting started, with $50,000 upon State Board of Education approval and another $50,000 when the location of the school was identified.
Lindsay Marchello is a staff writer for Carolina Journal.