This article, written by Jesse Pounds, originally appeared in the Greensboro News & Record.
GREENSBORO — A state budget amendment that would help charter schools serving low-income students looks close to becoming law. It’s an idea that started with a former Guilford County legislator, got championed by two current local representatives and stands to benefit at least one local charter school.
Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Greensboro) submitted the amendment, which creates a $2.5 million pilot program to reimburse transportation costs for charter schools whose enrollment of low-income students is 50 percent or higher. That amendment, which pulls money from other state transportation funds, is still within the lengthy budget passed by lawmakers and awaiting Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature or veto.
North Carolina’s charter schools serve a lower percentage of low-income students than traditional public schools, about 30 versus 50 percent, data from the state’s department of public instruction shows. And that has sometimes fueled criticisms of charter schools.
Most state charter schools don’t provide bus service for students — a barrier for some low-income families.
Hardister said the idea that eventually led to the amendment came from former local legislator Marcus Brandon, who runs an organization called North Carolina Campaign for Achievement Now. The organization advocates a variety of education reforms, including support for charter schools.
Brandon said charter schools get equal per-pupil funding from the state, but equal isn’t necessarily fair when some are spending more to serve low-income students.
“Any time you are dealing with that population, the cost is way different than if you are not,” he said. “You can have the greatest school in the world and it won’t matter if kids can’t access them.”
Brandon said he brought the idea to Cecil Brockman (D-High Point) who was supportive and hopes this will free up charter schools to spend money on things like information technology and field trips.
“One of the biggest critiques (from), quite frankly, folks on my side of the aisle is that (charter schools) aren’t serving poor, low-income black children,” Brockman said. “This bill gets at the accessibility arguments.”
Brockman, Hardister and two legislators from elsewhere in the state first submitted a version of the idea as a separate bill, but weren’t able to get it passed. Instead, the budget appropriation bill became the vehicle to get it through in the form of a pilot program.
In the state, charter schools are public elementary and secondary schools of choice that are not controlled by local school districts. Instead they are founded and created by nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors who receive a charter from the state.
They get public education dollars for school operations, but not school buildings. Some employ for-profit management companies. They can recruit students across county lines and attendance zones.
Under state law, charter schools are not required to provide transportation for students, although they must develop a plan “so that transportation is not a barrier to any student who resides in the local school district in which the school is located.”
That’s another difference from public schools, which must provide transportation.
Most charter schools will coordinate carpooling among families, Hardister said. But if a charter school is serving a high percentage of low-income families, that can be more difficult. Fewer families may have cars or the necessary flexibility in their schedules.
Among the 160-plus charter schools in North Carolina, there are about 30 providing transportation and an estimated 15 of those likely qualify for this grant, Hardister said.
Brandon said he knew of at least one school in Guilford County that plans to apply: the College Preparatory and Leadership Academy, on whose board he serves. The school, also known as “The Point,” is located in Jamestown near Furnitureland South.
“We will be participating in that hopefully if it goes through,” said Michelle Johnson, the school’s superintendent.
Johnson said about 70 percent of her school’s students are from low-income families and about 60 percent ride the bus. The school contracts with a bus service to pick children up at stops around Guilford County and as far away as Davidson and Forsyth counties.
Charter schools can spend as much as $50,000 to $60,000 per month on transportation, and College Preparatory and Leadership Academy spends almost that amount, Johnson said.
This grant would allow schools to be reimbursed up to 65 percent of transportation costs, with a cap of $100,000 per school for the 2017-18 academic year.
If College Preparatory and Leadership Academy gets the grant, administrators will likely use the savings for instructional supplies, additional teachers or teaching assistants.
“It’s a priority to provide an equitable education for all,” Johnson said.