Raleigh, N.C. — The Senate voted 25-19 Monday night to force traditional public schools to share more of their revenue with charter schools.
The measure, House Bill 539, would restore to the list of funds that must be shared with charters many of the revenue sources that were exempted in 2010.
Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, said it would help remedy a "large inequity" in funding between traditional public schools and charters.
"There's about 35 percent difference in the amount of money that charters get," Tillman said.
One of the funding sources that traditional schools would have to share with charters are indirect costs included in federal child nutrition grants. Those indirect costs – costs not directly incurred for food or preparation – can add up to millions of dollars in large districts.
Traditional public schools are required by law to provide nutrition services – lunch and often breakfast – to their students. Charter schools are not required to provide nutrition services, and the bill does not require charters to use that money for nutrition purposes.
"Many do have lunch programs," Tillman said. "Many that don’t have it want to get it. You don’t get it with no dollars. You must have some funds to work with."
Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, said he's a strong supporter of charter schools but could not support the measure.
"Why would you want to take public money from a public school that is obligated to provide a nutritional program and give it to a charter school that is not obligated to provide a nutritional program?" Ford asked. "To me, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense."
Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, tried to amend the bill to remove the nutrition funding from the list of shared revenues.
"There’s no obligation on any charter school to feed any kids with this money," Stein argued. "We’re taking the public schools' lunch money, but we’re not feeding the kids. It’s the wrong thing to do."
"If we don’t apportion the money, are the school lunches going to get bigger in the public schools?" asked Sen. Ron Rabin, R-Harnett. "Is any food being taken from any child’s mouth?"
Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, responded that many school nutritional programs are already struggling to operate with the funds they have.
"Yes, you will be taking the food out of the mouths of children in public schools to give the money to a charter school that is not providing food, and that is just wrong," Bryant said.
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, called Stein's amendment "blatantly an attempt to try to find another pot of money that we can make sure charter schools can’t be innovative with because they’re showing up our traditional schools in some of the things they’re doing."
The amendment failed, 14-29.
Supporters of the measure said many charters are already serving lunches at school and are already bearing both the direct and indirect costs.
"They do eat lunch during the day," said Sen Tommy Tucker, R-Union. "Nobody starves."
"Common sense tells me you ought to be able to get the overhead costs shared," added Tillman.
Tillman estimated the bill would result in about $11 million statewide being shifted from traditional public schools to charters, a transfer he characterized as "just scratching the surface of what needs to be done."
Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, warned that the bill overall is ambiguously written and predicted it would be the "starting gun" for yet another round of legal challenges of traditional schools by charters.
"This bill isn’t about whether you like charter schools or not. This bill is about whether you like lawsuits or not," Jackson cautioned the Senate. "If you’re looking for a way to transfer money from school districts to trial attorneys, you have found the perfect vehicle."
The bill passed 25-19, with four Republicans joining Democrats in voting against it: Sens. John Alexander, R-Wake, Ted Davis,R-Macon, Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, and Shirley Randleman, R-Wilkes.
It now goes back to the House for concurrence.