03/08/11 — School board speaks out against charter schools

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School board speaks out against charter schools

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 8, 2011 1:46 PM

Wayne County Board of Education drafted and Monday night unanimously approved a resolution opposing Senate Bill 8, No Cap on Charter Schools, citing potential disparities in funding and accountability.

Board member Rick Pridgen introduced the resolution in response to reports that legislators are considering the bill, which could increase the number of charter schools and redefine their funding.

"We're concerned about that in Wayne County," he said. "We have worked closely with the N.C. School Boards Association to try to keep this bill as it's changing every day, really, kind of from happening."

In part, Pridgen read, Bill 8 "would entitle charter schools to a portion of all funds that flow through local public school system accounts, including: donations from private entities; reimbursement of expenses (such as activity bus fees and gymnasium rental fees); grants that school boards took affirmative action to secure for programs that charter schools choose not to offer (such as Head Start, More at Four, JROTC and Free and Reduced Lunch); fund balances; and child nutrition funds (which include fees paid by parents and governmental subsidies even when the charter school does not serve lunch)."

The resolution also maintained that the bill, as proposed, would result in a "significant disparity" of per pupil operating funding in favor of charter schools.

The board is asking the General Assembly to reconsider the bill and make several modifications, including a mechanism for accounting of funds that are not appropriate to share with charter schools; not requiring sharing of funds when charter schools do not provide the programs involved; reinstating a reasonable number of minimum students necessary to form a charter school; and creating a bill that is fair and equitable for all public schools and students, while avoiding possible years of litigation to resolve.

At a minimum, the resolution asked legislators to consider revising the proposed bill so that traditional school systems are not required to share in self-sustaining, fee-based programs such as child nutrition, preschool and other federal programs that charter schools do not provide, and fund balance reserves.

"If the General Assembly passes Senate Bill 8 without the requested changes we respectfully request that the Governor veto the legislation," Pridgen read.

The board unanimously passed the resolution after a 20-minute discussion on the topic.

"I am not in favor of the resolution," said board member Arnold Flowers. "The resolution is kind of meaty but for me it appears that charter schools are asked to be funded exactly like public schools. ... but charter schools are not being asked to provide transportation, food, services. I could be a teacher at a charter school, unlicensed, it's my understanding. Ours are required to be licensed."

Flowers also took issue with other elements, such as charter schools not having a minimum number of students, not necessarily being required to serve children with special needs and if deemed unsuccessful, lack a provision to revoke the charter.

"Those things about it are not fair," he said. "It's not that I have a problem with more charter schools. It's just, how can we ask the taxpayer to support it and not provide all the services?"

But Pridgen said he does have a problem with them.

"I don't really feel like personally, charter school experiences we have had in the past have been a very positive situation," he said. "There's not been an accountability in the past that there should have been .... that's not been measured by the same yardstick that we have."

Pridgen suggested there has been no stop-gap measure in place -- should a charter school fail to teach a child and the student returns to the public school situation, the district is held accountable.

"From that experience and our past experience, I'm adamantly against this bill," he said.

Pridgen went on to say he felt the bill has taken many twists and turns, with some elements "added to it in the eleventh hour" without sufficient research to its educational impact.

"It's almost like this bill is being railroaded through," he said.

While some of the issues do stem from concerns about shared funding, Pridgen said that it isn't all about money. Rather, he said, it's more about being a "one-sided thing" that he cannot support.

"I'm not saying there are not good charter schools out there," he said. "There are some in this state. But in our county here, we have had what I would consider a negative experience.

"I would encourage the parents of Wayne County to speak to the legislators. It's a very serious legislation and it would take a lot of money away from our school system."

Board member Eddie Radford said the funding element should be studied, especially in light of the economy and recent hardship the district has experienced.

"It seems to me that the way the bill is written, we're not playing on a level playing field," he said. "We're already stretched out. I would like to see more accountability come into play."

Board member John Grantham said he didn't have a problem with charter schools. The problem, he noted, was in the way the bill is being proposed and lacked thought behind it.

"They want to use public schools students' money to fund charter school students, that's the bottom line and eventually somebody, I don't know who it is, is trying to break the backs of public school education," said Thelma Smith, board chair.

Dr. Steve Taylor, schools superintendent, said the budget crunch had been particularly difficult in recent years and the bill, in its current state, could drain funding sources even more.

"The way it's currently stated it's an unfair formula," he said.

In its present form, he explained, the bill could result in eliminating such programs as More at Four, which has been touted for readying youngsters for kindergarten.

"I can't imagine what the academic impact would be in our county if those programs were eliminated," he said.

The superintendent said he sees several problems with the bill, which he feels will be not only far-reaching but "very negative in its impact."

"Whatever happens, we ought to all play by the same rules. It's not fair if you are a public school, you have to play by this set of rules and if you're a charter school, you have to play by this set of rules," he said. "I don't understand the favoritism (to the charter schools)."

It's difficult enough for districts to achieve all the benchmarks handed down by the state and federal guidelines, Taylor said, without the additional burden of absorbing those unmet by the charter schools.

As such, the Senate bill does not appear to be the answer and has, in fact, been put together without sufficient forethought, Taylor said.

"I'm hoping that if it's debated this week in the House, many provisions will be changed," he said.