Bills would hurt public schools

Published 12:11 am Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Daily News Staff

Beaufort County’s top elected school official said two bills before the state Legislature would hurt North Carolina’s public schools.
A committee of the N.C. Senate that oversees education issues today is scheduled to consider a bill that would repeal the cap on the number of charter schools in North Carolina.
Meanwhile, a bill that has been filed in the N.C. House of Representatives by a Wake County legislator would give tax breaks to families to help pay for some North Carolina students to attend private or home schools in kindergarten through the 12th grade.
Both are bad ideas, according to Robert Belcher, chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Education.
Belcher said the two proposals would hurt public schools by taking badly needed funds away from those schools and sending them to charter, private or home schools.
“They will take tax dollars and send them with that child to a private school,” he said at a recent meeting at Southside High School. “That is money that is taken away from public schools.”
Belcher encouraged area residents to lobby against the bills.
“We need our tax dollars to stay in the public schools where our children are,” he added.
In addition to erasing limits on charter schools, the Senate bill would take oversight away from the state Board of Education and give it to a newly-created N.C. Public Charter School Commission, allow state funds — including N.C. Education Lottery money — to be used to build charter schools and eliminate a requirement that charters try to reflect the racial and ethnic composition of their local school district, according to recent press reports.
In an interview last week, the ethnic-composition component of the bill drew criticism from state Sen. Stan White, D-Dare, who represents Beaufort County and seven other northeast counties.
White opposes the bill as it’s written.
“It seems to me like we’re going back to segregation,” said White. “It seems to me that’s a round-about way of doing it. I hope I’m wrong in even thinking it, but the way that thing’s written that’s the gut feeling I got out of it.”
Bob Luebke is a senior policy analyst with the conservative John W. Pope Civitas Institute in Raleigh.
Luebke, whose advocacy group supports the proposed legislation, disagrees with the argument that the bill reflects racial bias.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” said Luebke. “I think if you look at the number of low-income children that are actually in charter schools, I think the statistics would dispel that argument. Secondly, there’s also a statute currently on the books that requires charter schools, the enrollment of charter schools, to mirror the surrounding populations with regards to economic diversity and racial diversity. That’s already on the books.”
Charter schools are public schools that operate without many of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. Charter schools choose students by lottery, and many popular charter schools have waiting lists for students.
According to Luebke, statewide, thousands of students are on charter-school waiting lists.
“I think that speaks somewhat to how popular the schools are and how satisfied parents are with those schools,” he commented.
State law currently caps the number of charter schools in North Carolina at 100.
Legislative observers predict that some change in the charter-school cap is all but certain to pass. 
Groups like the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association that have traditionally opposed raising the cap have announced publicly they are backing off that opposition, citing the new political realities in Raleigh.
The Senate Education Committee, meanwhile, is considering a bill sponsored by House Majority Leader Paul Stam that would give a tax credit of $2,500 a year to families meeting income thresholds to offset private school costs. It would also give counties the ability to give a tax credit of $1,000 to those same families.
White questioned the motives of Senate leaders pushing the bill that would eliminate the charter-school cap.
Charter schools don’t have to provide meals or transportation for their students, and this puts some students at a disadvantage, he asserted.
“I mean, certainly low-income people that live a distance away, whether it’s five miles or six miles, if transportation’s not part of the program you weed those people out of the opportunity to go to a charter school,” the senator remarked.
The only good meal some students get in a given day is at a public school, White pointed out.
“I think they’re trying to create — I don’t know if the word’s an elite school, but certainly I think they’re limiting the opportunities of the disenfranchised to be able to attend these,” he said.
Luebke said the typical complaint of school teachers and administrators is that charter schools sap public funding that normally would go to public schools.
“My answer to that is that charter schools are public schools,” he said, adding there are state mechanisms in place to alleviate drops in traditional schools’ student populations.