Raleigh, N.C. — Both Republican and Democratic members of the House Elections Committee said Thursday they believe a bill that would transfer more money from traditional public schools to charter schools was poorly drafted and raised both technical and substantive questions they were not prepared to answer.
"We cannot get a clear cut answer on a pretty basic core piece of this bill," Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Transylvania, said when staff members struggled to resolve two seemingly conflicting provisions in the measure. "This bill is not ready for (prime) time."
Charter schools are publicly funded schools run by private nonprofit boards. When a student leaves the public schools and enrolls in a charter, the "per-pupil" amount that his school system would have spent on that child is supposed to go to the charter school. Exactly what should go into that "per-pupil" amount has been a subject of controversy, and lawsuits, for years.
House Bill 539 tries to sort those issues out, creating lists of what funding is subject to being shared with charters and what is not. But House members split both on the drafting of the measure and the substance, with some saying it would drain scarce resources from traditional public schools.
"What kind of negative impact does that have on our traditional public schools to send that money away?" asked Rep. Bobbie Richardson, D-Franklin, partly rhetorically.
But legislative staff members said they did not have a table showing how much more money each school district would have to shift if the measure becomes law.
Charter schools are often a point of conflict at the legislature, with supporters saying they help relieve the pressure on public schools and give students a chance to opt out of educational systems that aren't working for them. Detractors say charters cherry-pick students and create a self- fulfilling prophesy of low-performing public schools by taking motivated students and money away.
"This bill corrects a huge inequity," said Rep. John Bradford, R-Mecklenburg, adding that lawmakers should avoid pitting to two different kinds of schools against one another.
But even some lawmakers generally supportive of charters said they were skeptical of this particular bill.
"I'm just not prepared to vote for it and can't," said Rep. Phil Shepard, R-Onslow, who isn't a member of the committee but came to the meeting to express his point of view. "I think there's too many questions unanswered out there."
Because of how the bill was drafted, neither the Education Committee nor the full House can amend the bill. That's because the Senate gutted an unrelated house measure dealing with playgrounds and inserted the charter school language. That means the House can only vote to approve the measure, sending it to Gov. Pat McCrory, or reject it. Or the House could choose to just hold onto the bill and do nothing, letting it die when the session adjourns this summer.
"At this point, we just wanted a discussion of the bill," said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes, one of three Education Committee chairmen.
In addition to discussing the bill, committee members heard from advocates on both sides of the debate Thursday. But Elmore would not say what he thought the next steps might be.
Occasionally, committees will vote on these sort of "gut-and-amend" bills to give the House guidance on the measures.
Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, also a chairman of the committee, said that kind of vote was unlikely. Rather, he said, the committee chairmen would likely meet to form a recommendation early next week.
"At this point, it's time for us to make a decision," Horn said.