A bill recently approved by the N.C. House to lift the 100-school cap on charter schools could bring more of these nontraditional public schools to the Lake Norman area, local educators say.
The bill has essentially put traditional and charter schools at odds, and some area educators say the bill could result in the formation of a publicly funded, segregated system.
“What is their rationale for doing it?” asked retired educator and Huntersville community activist Bee Jay Caldwell. “If you already don’t have enough money for traditional public schools, why are you giving away money you don’t already have? The bill is a way to provide private schools under the name of public education.”
But charter schools see it as a way to promote a successful teaching model.
Lynne Prunier, a civics teacher at Lincoln Charter’s middle and high school campus in Denver, has encouraged her students to track the bill as it makes its way through the legislative process. Her class even drafted a petition in favor of the legislation before senators approved it earlier this year.
“Any time I hear students talk about why they love Lincoln Charter, the common theme is often class size,” Prunier said. “Some come from schools like Hopewell or Hough and say, ‘I’m not sure my teacher even knew my name.’”
Prunier is confident that lifting the cap would not decrease the quality of charter school education or exclude poorer students. Lincoln Charter provides transportation to all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, at a fee of $25 per semester.
Controversy began brewing in February as the N.C. Senate started debating its counterpart legislation – Bill 8 – which would allow charter schools to get public school system funds for services they aren’t required to provide, such as transportation and lunch programs – services often used by poor children.
The bill also seeks to create a charter school commission that would operate independently from the State Board of Education.
Committees in the N.C. House added language requiring charter schools to provide lunch services to students whose family income falls 185 percent below the federal poverty line and transportation to those same students who live within 3 miles of the school. The bill passed the House April 11 on a 68-51 vote. But the Senate voted to reject the House changes and sent the bill to committee for discussion.
The House version of the bill gives the charter school less autonomy, allowing the state board to override decisions. But it will allow creation of 50 more charter schools annually.
Demand is high for admission into the state’s 99 charter schools, which now operate in 47 counties, according to Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, an organization that champions parental school choice. About 20,000 students remain on charter school waiting lists, he said.
Increasing the number of charter schools in the state would be a good thing, Prunier said.
“The waiting list won’t necessarily just disappear. However, as the law is now, a school with the most innovative teaching programs and ideas could not receive a charter because it is school number 101. You have say ‘I’m sorry, but there is an arbitrary number you have to stop at.’”
Three schools, Mountain Island Charter, Lincoln Charter and Lake Norman Charter, pull children from the Mountain Island area, as well as other districts. Federal, state and local per-pupil dollars follow each student to their respective charter school, even if that student attends a school outside of his or her assigned school district.
If Senate Bill 8 passes the General Assembly and Gov. Bev Perdue’s desk, more money will leave the county’s school system as students move to new charter schools.
Charter schools, often touted by Republican lawmakers as a system that encourages school performance through competition, have been operating within the state since 1996. Although bills to lift the 100-school cap have been presented in the past, new Republican majorities in both houses of the General Assembly have pushed the bill through the legislative process this spring.