School choice advocates have brought a lawsuit in North Carolina seeking funding equity in public education.
The North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law filed a complaint on September 21 on behalf of seven charter schools challenging the state’s funding formula, seeking the ability to request money from the state in the same way traditional public schools already do. Under North Carolina’s charter school law, enacted in 1996, and an advisory opinion from the state Attorney General handed down in 1998, charter schools are not allowed ask their counties for money for facilities or project funding, while government-run public schools are.
“Traditional public schools are funded by the state and county for operational and capital expenses, [while] charter schools only receive state operational funding,” said Jason Kay, a senior staff attorney for the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law. “Moreover, the North Carolina Constitution states, ‘The General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools ¼ wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.’ The [current] system is not uniform.”
Public, Not Private
Opponents of equal funding argue charter schools don’t deserve a chance for more state money because they are often run by private corporations. An editorial in the September 22 edition of the Charlotte Observer argued, “Voters have no say in selecting those who operate them as they do with boards of traditional public schools. Voters also approve bonds for traditional schools.”
But although charter school operators may not be subject to voter approval, the schools themselves are far from private—they are fully public schools, approved by local or state school boards and held accountable by the families they serve. If charters fail or become financially mismanaged, they are more likely to be closed down than any government-run public school.
“Charter schools are public schools, and their children are as much public school children as are the children who go to the public school system, and it seems to me they ought to be treated uniformly as the constitution says,” said Sugar Creek board member Richard Vinroot.
With 97 public charter schools serving more than 33,000 of the state’s children, there is growing demand and support for quality charter schools throughout North Carolina. According to a 2008 poll by the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, more than six of 10 North Carolina voters approve of increasing charter schools statewide.
The difference between what North Carolina spends on government-run and charter schools is considerable. Mecklenburg County spends $8,118.79 on average per student, compared to $4,216 spent per charter school student. Union County spends $7,103 per government-run public school student, compared to $4,174 per charter school student.
Similarly, Rutherford County spends $7,827 on each government-run public school student and $4,733 per charter school student. In Nash County per-student expenditures average $8,155, compared to $4,718 for charters. These averages include federal, state, and local funding sources.
Thus the numbers show that even in instances where academic outcomes are the same, charter schools give more bang for the buck than government-run public schools. Despite the funding disparities, an analysis of grade-level performance released August 6 by the John Locke Foundation found North Carolina’s charter schools outperformed traditional public schools, with 73 percent of charter students testing at grade level, compared to 69 percent of their public-school peers. In addition, 91 of the state’s 97 charters met the national Adequate Yearly Progress achievement targets set by the federal government.
At press time the case was scheduled for trial in county courts at a date yet to be determined.
“We are hopeful,” said Kay. “Parents and the communities seem to be very much aware this isn’t fair.”
Evelyn B. Stacey ([email protected]) is an education policy fellow at Pacific Research Institute, a think tank in Sacramento, California.