The formal budget fight may be over in the General Assembly but the battle over education funding and the crusade to dismantle traditional public schools continue in the session’s waning days.
Senate leaders unveiled a proposal in the Senate Finance Committee Monday afternoon that would divert more funding from the majority of local school districts across the state to charter schools, including federal support for transportation and school lunches that many charters don’t even provide.
The proposal appeared of out nowhere as a bill about school playgrounds was gutted and replaced with the controversial charter school funding provisions, a version of legislation that passed the Senate months ago but stalled in the House.
Very few people seemed to know the charter bill was coming, including public school officials and most of the committee members themselves.
A representative of the school administrators association, also blind-sided by the proposal, told the lawmakers that it would adversely affect their local schools and that their school officials would be strongly against it.
That didn’t deter supporters of the funding change, led by Senator Chad Barefoot, whose only answer to every question was that the “money should follow the child,” a talking point that is not only an oversimplification, but a statement that makes little sense if a charter school is receiving federal funding for services it doesn’t have to provide or if a student attends a school outside a special tax district.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown admitted he was confused by the effect of all the complicated provisions transferring money from school districts to charters and he wasn’t the only one.
Even Barefoot acknowledged that he wasn’t an expert on the legislation and was handling it because Senate Education Chair Jerry Tillman was absent due to a death in family.
The confusion of committee members and Barefoot’s inability to adequately explain the complicated finance changes didn’t seem to faze Finance Chair Bob Rucho who called for a vote on the surprise legislation anyway, brushing aside questions from committee members by telling them that the staff would provide the requested information to them.
In other words, lawmakers would vote before they understood the actual consequences of what they were voting on, how much it would cost their local schools and whether not diverting federal funding violated the law.
And they vote they did, approving the funding changes on a voice vote, the outcome of which was a foregone conclusion.
The committee meeting was clearly not held to debate the merits of the proposal. It was held to ram through legislation that shifts more taxpayer funding from traditional schools to charters.
It affects the distribution of sales tax revenue and supplemental property taxes for public schools, and may force traditional public schools to set up separate accounts for grants and donations. The bill could also impact federal funding for school technology.
The misguided plan is the latest evidence that Senate leaders have never met a charter school bill they didn’t like.
They always seem to start with the same assumption, that charter school advocates are always right, that charters are always superior to traditional schools in their own district and that charters deserve more and more funding.
The charter movement when it began was billed as a way to create laboratories of innovation, unique schools that could develop effective education strategies that could then be used by traditional public schools.
It hasn’t turned out that way. Many charter advocates and most of their supporters in the General Assembly aren’t looking to innovate anymore.
They are looking to compete and win and then dismantle and replace the traditional public schools they never fully supported. The legislation unveiled this week is their latest mode of attack.
It may have been launched in secret but the intentions are clear.
Chris Fitzsimon is the founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch.