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Bills expanding private and charter school funding get approval from House education committee

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  • These legislation would expand public funding for private schools, increase funding for charter schools, and change the process for approving, renewing, or revoking charter schools.
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The House Education K-12 Committee gave a favorable report to several bills that would dramatically impact public education and the funding of education across the state on Tuesday. 

The committee heard bills that would expand funding for private schools, increase funding for charter schools, and change the process for approving, renewing, or revoking charter schools.

Committee Chair Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, called a favorable report on each bill based on a voice vote. The bills now go to the House rules committee.

Opportunity Scholarships

House Bill 823, entitled “Choose Your School, Choose Your Future,” would increase the per pupil funding for private school tuition and expand the Opportunity Scholarship program to all students, regardless of their family’s income. 

The bill sponsors, including House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, told the committee that the legislation is aimed at giving parents more choice over their children’s education. Some legislators and members of the public questioned the increased use of public funds for private schools, saying that the General Assembly has not fully funded public schools yet and private schools do not have the same accountability standards as public schools.

The senate is considering a companion bill, SB 406, which you can read more about here

The highest scholarship amount under HB 823 is 100% of the state’s per pupil allocation for traditional public school. That is available to families with incomes required to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Families whose incomes are twice that required to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch would get 90% of the state’s per pupil allocation. Any family, regardless of income, would get at least 45%.

“This type of funding works on a tiered system so that our most vulnerable and our most highest threshold of the poverty level receive the most amount of money,” Rep. Tricia Cotham, R-Mecklenburg, said. “So I’ve heard all the rhetoric and the concept that this is about rich kids using taxpayer dollars to go to private schools. That is false.”

However, even at the highest allocations, Rep. Rosa Gill, D-Wake, said, the scholarship is unlikely to fund full tuition at most nonpublic schools. She said it calls into question whether the bill sponsors’ goals of providing school choice could be accomplished.

“This bill, in my opinion, poses a great threat to our public education system. And it does not advance the stated goals of fostering greater choice as this funding will go to families who already send their children to private school,” she said. “Choice is great, but most parents who send their kids to private schools have already made their choice.”

The Opportunity Scholarship fund, under this bill, would nearly double to an annual allocation of $366,540,000 for the 2024-25 school year. The annual fund amount would continue increasing from there and reach $509,540,000 in 2032-33. 

Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, said he is a proponent of school choice but, as appropriations chair, he hesitated about the funding amounts promised for future budget terms. 

Nevertheless, he said he is confident they would find the money for it.

Several public commenters found that disheartening, given the General Assembly’s current shortfall of funding Years 2 and 3 of the Leandro Plan for public education is $509,701,707.

“If you all were fulfilling your constitutional responsibility to fund a sound basic education for every child, and then providing opportunities scholarships, education savings accounts, and stuff for choice, that would be a very different conversation,” said Renee Sekel, a lawyer and advocate who spoke during the public comment period. “But that’s not what’s happening. You all are standing in open defiance of the North Carolina Supreme Court.”

Is there accountability for schools that receive the funds?

Rep. Julie von Haefen, D-Wake, questioned the accountability of private schools that would now receive more public funding. 

She cited a Friday Institute study, which she said showed that North Carolina’s is the only such in the country that does not support rigorous quantitative evaluation of the program’s impact on student achievement.

“Now we’re passing a bill that would further denigrate the accountability of this program,” she said. “We have no testing, no public accountability. Sending half a billion dollars to a program that has no accountability is fiscally irresponsible.”

Cotham disagreed that private schools are not accountable.

“They’re accountable to parents who will pay for that tuition,” she said. “They’re accountable to everyone inside that school.”

Three members of the public, each affiliated with Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said they chose to send their kids to private school because the public school option was not a good fit for them. One of them repeated Cotham’s sentiment, saying her child’s private school is accountable to her.

Charter School Omnibus

Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, introduced amendments to House Bill 219, a charter school omnibus bill. The bill would change the current determination of per-pupil funding that traditional public schools share with local charter schools.

HB 219 adds new categories of financing for charter schools — including sharing of public school fund balances, federal reimbursements, sales tax reimbursements, and facility-use fees collected from outside groups. 

The bill also requires districts to share funding for services that not every charter school provides, like NC Pre-K. 

On Tuesday, the education committee heard about an amendment to that bill.

“Some items were removed from the bill, some items stayed in the bill,” Torbett said. “What I can tell you is that both sides have met and both sides are equally disappointed in the bill.”

The primary point of discussion involved how funding works relative to average daily membership or total authorized membership.

Legislative staff said that funding is based on membership, but that the amendment allows for schools to capture funding for students who transfer into charter schools from traditional public schools (and vice versa) after the period that the Department of Public Instruction uses to calculate total average daily membership.

The amendment also allows for charter schools to request adjustments to their target enrollment annually. For charter schools that are low performing, they can ask for up to a 20% increase in authorized enrollment. These schools previously could not request an increase in enrollment.

von Haefen questioned why the General Assembly should reward a school for being low performing.

“Our goal is to raise all low-performing schools, both in charter and traditional public schools,” Torbett said. “I don’t think necessarily they need to be hand spanked for not getting there.”

Charter School Review Board

HB 618 would eliminate the Charter School Advisory Board, create a Charter School Review Board, and move authority from the State Board of Education and grant it to the new review board.

Cotham said the goal of this legislation is to streamline the charter school application process, which she called lengthy and time-consuming. The review board would be made up of “experts in the field and those with deep financial backing into funding of charter schools.”

The composition of the proposed review board is exactly the same as the composition of the current advisory board, legislative staff members confirmed, except for the addition of the state superintendent of public instruction as a voting member. 

Rep. Brandon Lofton, D-Mecklenburg, put forth an amendment to expand the review board by two members, who would be appointed by the governor. Cotham spoke against the amendment and Blackwell announced its defeat off a voice vote.

von Haefen took issue with the proposed transfer of authority from the State Board of Education to the new review board.

“The State Board is constitutionally charged with supervising and administering our public school system,” she said. “So if the Board no longer has the authority to approve or revoke or renew charters, which are public schools, then it’s taking away that supervisory and administrative authority of our public school system and transferring it to a completely different board that was created by our General Assembly.”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.