In a recent article in the Raleigh News and Observer, the authors noted that public charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools receiving $580.8 million in state money this school year, and they are exempt from some rules that traditional public schools must follow, such as serving meals and providing transportation. It is true that public charter schools do trade their fair share of funding towards education for autonomy. However, in regards to transportation and lunch services, charters must meet the same requirements that traditional public schools meet and provide the services without key funding.  

For any public school, traditional or charter, there is no provision in public school law (115C-239)  that states public schools must provide transportation. The law states that each district has the “authority to acquire, own, lease and operate buses.” Overall, this law is filled with many “may’s,” not “shall’s,” and those are interpreted differently across the state. For example, the Wake County Public School transportation page notes that, according to state law, they do not have to provide transportation to any students within a 1.5 mile walk zone. Charter schools enroll students from multiple counties, sometimes 40 miles away, making it impossible to set a similar “no-transportation line” and almost impossible to create plausible bus stop routes.

Regardless of these facts, the reality is that traditional public schools receive additional capital funding to purchase and maintain school buses. This capital funding is in addition to their state- provided operational per-pupil funding, money which public charter schools do not receive. When their buses reach a limit of 150,000 miles, they are replaced for free. This high mileage number is typically when a charter school purchases the bus because that is when the bus cost fits the charter schools’ limited budget. This is less than ideal for the safety of the children riding in those buses, but charter schools have limited choices in this arena.

In regards to school lunch programs, according to House Bill 891, charter schools may choose to participate in the Federal Lunch program and receive funds to provide these foods. However, charter schools receive neither the funding to build the certified kitchens required by the Federal Lunch program, nor do they receive the funding to staff their kitchens. These expenses come out of their general funding set aside for daily operations and academic programming. Charter schools utilize 100% of their allocated state and local funding to upfit buildings, pay employees, and buy instructional items. They must be innovative and focused on what provides them the greatest return on investment and optimize their service to their students.

Below is a list of public school laws that apply to traditional and charter schools alike followed by and the laws that give charter schools the flexibility to be innovative.

The Same: Charter schools are the same as traditional public schools in the following areas:

  1. Exceptional Children: If the child is accepted into the open lottery, public charter schools must provide a full continuum of exceptional children services.
  2. Health and Safety: Public charter schools must abide by the same public school health rules as traditional public charter schools. This includes the Family Education Privacy Rights Acts (FERPA), OSHA regulations, and any state mandate regulating school safety and building certification.
  3. Accountability: Public charter schools must take the same End of Grade assessments as all traditional public school children in grades 3-8 and 10, and abide by the Read to Achieve laws and policies. Public charters must chart student attendance through PowerSchool and are held accountable through annual independent fiscal and compliance audits.
  4. School Calendar: All public schools must provide a minimum of 1,025 instructional hours or 185 days of school.

Same but Different: Charter schools have more rigid standards than traditional public schools in these five areas:

  1. Exceptional Children: Traditional public schools can transfer students with disabilities to an alternative school or “home school” within the district. This allows them to create larger classrooms in separate settings. Public charter schools do not have this luxury and must educate that child in their school setting, even if that means providing one teacher for that one student.
  2. Health and Safety: Traditional public schools have large central offices and specific staff to support the many compliances areas of public health. Public charter school boards and principals must be innovative to ensure the safety and well being of all children by training staff to fill multiple roles to care for medically fragile students and for those students with complex allergies, toileting needs, and blood sugar regulation needs.   
  3. Accountability: When public charter schools violate laws, mismanage funding, or do not perform academically, they are closed. If this happens in a school system, district lines are changed, principals are moved, and districts are provided additional funding from local county offices. In addition, charters do not have multiple layers of back office administrative support as do traditional public schools.
  4. Student Admissions: Any student who lives in North Carolina is eligible for attendance at a charter school; a school district has specific lines for enrollment eligibility. Charter school admissions are based upon an equal open opportunity lottery by grade range, and may allow certain preferences for siblings and staff/board members. In addition, charters may choose to weight the lottery for the benefit of lower income families.
  5. Charter Agreement: When public charter school operators are granted a charter, it is based on a five-year promise. These promises are mapped out in a charter agreement that currently contains just under 80 items that charter school operators must follow or they will be financially penalized or closed.

True Flexibility: Although public charter school leaders are given a mile, most of them take only an inch when it comes to their overall flexibility. Outlined below are some specific areas of public school law in which which public charter schools have flexibility in their operations:  

  1. Facility: Charter schools must meet local requirements for an Educational Certificate of Occupancy in order to hold school, but they do not have to build large brick and mortar facilities through taxpayer bonds. Many times, these facilities provide innovative teaching spaces and outdoor classrooms to meet their mission. Leaders utilize the school’s allotted funds to build new, or to refurbish old facilities to meet their needs. This saves taxpayers millions of dollars each year.
  2. Teacher Licenses: Public charter schools are not required to exclusively hire licensed teachers. All of their content teachers must have a college degree, but only 50% must be currently licensed in the area they teach in North Carolina.
  3. Teacher Workdays: Charter schools are not required to meet any requirement for work days for employees.
  4. Curriculum: Charter schools are not required to teach the State’s adopted curriculum; however, their students do take the same assessments.
  5. Teacher Pay: Charter schools are not required to follow the state’s pay scale. However, they do not receive the same raise as district teachers, nor does the organization receive local supplement funding that district employees receive. They must utilize their allotted funds, or fundraise, if they choose to match the pay of their county.
  6. Per Pupil Funding: Charter schools are not required to utilize the same internal RFP or line item processes to spend their allocated state funding. Their per pupil allotment is a combined formula of most school district allocations.
  7. Employees: Charter school employees are at-will employees and work on an annual contract. They do not need specific credentials or degrees to hold positions (i.e. principal has no state requirements for degree or credentials).
  8. Employee Evaluations: Charter schools may evaluate their employees according to their own evaluation tools and processes. For beginning teachers, charter schools may apply for a waiver to not participate in the North Carolina teacher evaluation model.
  9. School Size and Grade Structure: Most public charter schools are extremely intentional with the size of their overall student enrollment. Although there are restrictions to growth, some charter schools stay small and enroll fewer than 200 students in a K-8 model, while others grow to serve over 1,000 students. Regardless of the overall school size and structure, they are not required to abide by specific classroom sizes traditional public schools do.

One of the key purposes of charter schools was to be incubators of innovation for all public schools (fill out our innovation survey). This is occurring at high levels in many charter schools from an operational, staffing, and financial perspective. Many traditional public school districts have applied for such flexibility; in essence, the charter school movement is serving its purpose. The question is, are districts willing to sacrifice their funding for this autonomy?

This blog was written by Dr. Thomas Miller of Leaders Building Leaders, human behavior consultant, coach, trainer, and speaker for school and business leaders. If you would like to learn more about how you can focus your time on priorities, communicate more effectively and build stronger teams, set up a complimentary discovery session with Tom by clicking here or emailing Tom@Leaders-Building-Leaders.com.

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