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Charters want cut of lottery money

Advocates of charter schools have launched a statewide campaign to correct what they claim is an inequality in the way lottery money will be doled out for education.

North Carolina legislators passed a lottery this year. The revenue will go toward education, with a large portion designated for school construction and capital outlay. While charter schools are public schools, they won’t get a piece of that school construction money, however.

“They are public schools like everybody else. It is hard to imagine why they wouldn’t,” said Suzanne Vincent, president of the Mountain Discovery Charter School board of directors. “I think once people find out we aren’t getting the money, people will say ‘Why? That doesn’t make any sense.’”

It’s not just school construction money from the lottery that charter schools will miss out on, however. Charter schools don’t get a share of any school construction money, whether state or local. Charter schools only get a share of school operation money.

“The lottery is really the tip of the iceberg,” said Carter Petty, co-director of Mountain Discovery in Bryson City. Petty said charter schools should be entitled to the same share of public education funding.

“We are public schools. We don’t charge tuition. We are accountable to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction,” Petty said. “We have to meet testing requirements just like anyone else and financial requirements just like anyone else, and all the auditing and reporting that public schools go through.”

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Of the lottery proceeds that will go toward education, 40 percent is designated for capital outlay or school construction, 10 percent will go toward college scholarships for low-income students, and 50 percent will go toward lowering class sizes in elementary classrooms to fewer than 18 students. Charter schools will get a share of the lottery money designated for reducing class size.

Of the 40 states with charter schools, most are set up like North Carolina. Charter schools get a share of education dollars for instruction and operation, but not school construction or capital outlay, according to Shaka Mitchell, the associate director of policy for the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C.

“In some states it was just kind of an oversight,” Mitchell said. “Legislators said that charter schools are public schools and should get an equal share of education funding. What they don’t realize is that there are other statutes covering capital outlay. It is in a totally different chapter of state finance code. That’s been a hindrance to charter schools in a lot of states.”

While sometimes an oversight on part of legislators when writing charter school bills, getting the legislation changed is difficult, Mitchell said.

“Once a bad law is written, it is very tough to go back and get those changed,” Mitchell said. “You do have a lot of opponents to charter schools. They see this creates higher barriers to starting up a charter school if you are not going to get that money.”

That is not stopping the League of Charter Schools in North Carolina from trying, however. Jackie Williams, director of Evergreen Charter School in Asheville, has been involved in a statewide effort to change the wording in the law.

“There is a perception that charter schools are somehow draining public schools of money,” Williams said. “But it is just money that follows the child. It doesn’t make any sense for other schools to be funded at a higher level.”

Williams said there are 30,000 students in charter schools in the state, accounting for 2 percent of public school students.

The gap in public funding of charter schools in some ways has made charter school communities stronger.

“We run an amazingly tight ship, down to knowing how much we spend at the copier to what our phone bill is. We just run a really, really tight ship. We also count on parent volunteers to do things most schools would hire someone to do,” said Chris Cruz, a parent on the Mountain Discovery board of directors. “I’ve replaced doorknobs and helped build the school.”

Mountain Discovery School only has three paid employees who aren’t teachers, a relatively small administration. The school has 125 students.

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