Last week the Cornelius town board was asked to consider joining HB 514, a bill that would give Cornelius the option of starting its own charter school. Last night CMS gave a presentation on the “facts” around HB 514. Since the format did not allow for dialogue, I offer my response here.
Under current NC law, charter schools can only be run by non-profit 501c3 organizations. HB514 would expand this restriction to include municipalities who have asked for this option. (North Carolina is a Dillion Rule state, meaning authority is vested with the legislature and delegated to municipalities at the discretion of the legislature.)
HB514 was introduced last year by State Representative Bill Brawley from Matthews in response to residents’ complaints that CMS was not addressing their concerns regarding school assignment. But Cornelius and Huntersville were asked if they were interested in opting in for a different reason:
Last Fall Mecklenburg voters approved a $922 million bond package for school renovation and new school construction, the largest bond issuance in county history by a factor of nearly three. Despite the size of this bond package, it contained no funding for any new schools north of Charlotte. Recognizing this, Cornelius voters came out against the bond package by a margin of 58-42%.
These bonds will soak up all of the county’s debt capacity until at least 2024. Assuming CMS floats another bond as soon as possible, and the bond includes new schools for LKN, the earliest we’ll see any new schools opening in LKN would be around 2027.
In other words, Lake Norman will have zero new schools for area residents for at least a decade.
Faced with this reality, Huntersville and Cornelius opted in to HB 514. The bill has faced harsh criticism from CMS. Let’s examine some of the criticisms.
Issue 1: Charter schools could trigger reassignment
With a municipal charter siphoning off local students, the reasoning goes, CMS would be forced to review student attendance zones. The result could be, for example, Hough High serves only Cornelius & Davidson students.
This reasoning ignores cause and effect. A town would most likely build a charter school as a remedy for overcrowding. After the charter school opens, the public school would be operating at capacity instead of over it, solving the overcrowding issue. No student reassignment needed.
The possibility of serious overcrowding in LKN is real. Right now Hough is at 116% capacity. A 300-home development (West Branch) is being built just down the hill, as well as several other high-density developments in Davidson. Again, this with no new classrooms on the horizon.
More ominous is the threat of reassignment to deliberately overcrowd. For example, one board member has said CMS would look at reassigning over 1,000 Matthews students currently attending Charlotte schools back to Matthews. Butler High would see an immediate influx of around 300 students. “Be careful what you wish for,” she warned in a statement the Observer. “Sometimes when you give people what they want there are unintended consequences.”
Issue 2: Charter schools result in higher taxes
CMS budget has two major categories- operating and capital.
The operating budget is funded by federal, state and county funds. North Carolina allocates funding to school districts based on several factors including number of students, income level and special needs of the district. CMS receives about $9,196 per student, for a total operating budget of $1.4 billion.
The capital budget includes new schools and facilities as well as expansion and renovation of existing ones. The capital budget is funded by state or county bonds, like last November’s bond package.
A charter school would receive a state per-pupil allocation per above. This would cover operating cost but not capital costs nor ancillary costs like transportation. Charter schools must raise funds for capital costs. The only way a municipal charter school could do this, according to CMS, would be through increased taxes.
This is incorrect.
Right now there are over 170 charter schools in North Carolina. To my knowledge, none of them receive municipal funds. Many charters schools lease their buildings, an option CMS never discussed. In this case, capital costs would be zero. Instead CMS insists on the bureaucracy-centric idea that the only way to build schools is by additional taxation.
There are 170+ real-life examples disproving this.
Issue 3: Charter schools do not offer the same programming breadth
CMS offers a breadth of programs beyond basic academia, including athletics, music, arts, special programming, and career preparation. In addition, CMS provides meal and nutrition services, transportation services and family support services. Smaller charter schools cannot offer the same breadth of curricula and services.
No disagreement here; one would hope CMS, with a $1.4 billion annual budget, would offer tremendous breadth. But programming breadth is only one of many issues parents weigh before placing their child in a charter school. Given that three area charter schools have a cumulative waiting list of over 12,000, clearly parents are basing their decision on other factors.
One anecdotal note. Charters tend to build breadth over time. At its inception Pine Lake Prep, for instance, offered no transportation and very limited athletics and arts. Indeed, the school did not even have a gymnasium. Today, however, the school boasts several varsity athletic programs, a state-of-the-art athletic center, and a brand new arts center, and transportation.
Issue 4: Charter schools mean lost magnet school seats
In order to attend a magnet school a student must be enrolled in CMS. Those attending a charter school cannot attend a CMS magnet school.
Per above, parents opting in to a charter school have already made the decision that their child is not attending a magnet school, so the issue is moot.
Also, there’s no guarantee a CMS student could attend a magnet school anyway as seats are assigned by lottery.
Issue 5: Charter schools hasten resegregation
In 1972, a landmark Supreme Court case (Swann v Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools) upheld busing as a means to end school segregation. The busing program could end once integration was achieved (i.e. the district achieved “unitary” status). In 1999 a federal appeals court found just that (Capacchione v Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools). By 2002 CMS had eliminated busing as a means of integration and adopted the “School Choice Program” which allowed parents to keep their children in neighborhood schools if they so desired. It is basically the system we have today.
While CMS student population is 28% white, Cornelius is 92% white. Because HB 514 would allow municipal charters the ability to give town residents preferential admission, a Cornelius charter school would reflect the town’s demographics. Hence a Cornelius charter- and all municipal charters in low-poverty, predominantly white suburbs- could be characterized as “resegregating” public schools.
A recent study by CMS highlighted the stark difference between white/low poverty and poor/minority student achievement. Indeed, anyone denying such a difference exists is simply denying reality. Other studies have shown a link between student underachievement and concentrated minority student populations (i.e. “segregated” schools), and the benefits of education in a diverse environment.
The policy emphasis and legal ramifications are obviously beyond the scope of this blog post. I’m presenting the results and literature below simply to inform.
However, there is a narrative that “families of means… move into whiter neighborhoods where they (know) their kids will go to whiter schools.”
I disagree. The non-native Cornelians I know have moved here from somewhere outside the region. They’re not urban refugees fleeing to suburbia. So I posit a simpler explanation for neighborhood schools: parents with students in extracurricular activities already face a daunting logistical challenge of getting students to after-school practices, meetings and events. The idea of trying to do this for a school 10-15 miles away- especially with the state of our roads- is untenable.
The municipal charter option for Cornelius is simply based on the potential need to provide adequate facilities for Cornelius students.
There are a couple of other issues that were not discussed last night but have been previously:
Bonus issue 1: Charter schools could trigger retaliation
Over the last few weeks CMS board members have made ominous written and verbal statements regarding the consequences if a town adopts HB 514. In addition to reassignment, school board members have said they could:
- Terminate all cooperative agreements for towns that voted for HB514. Like most towns, Cornelius & Huntersville have agreements to use CMS facilities during non-school hours and vice-versa. Currently there are three such agreements for Cornelius and six for Huntersville. Apparently the existence of a municipal charter is sufficient cause to deny the use of these public facilities that were bought and paid for by you, the taxpayer.
- Eliminate any future capital spending for new schools in towns that adopt HB 514. In fact, at their April 24th meeting a plurality of school board members suggested taking this action, and one has even committed to it in her blog.
Then there was this stunningly inappropriate metaphor last night from Thelma Byers-Bailey, CMS Board Member District 2:
“I don’t negotiate well with a gun to my head.”
Unfortunately these statements are not indicative of “cooperation” and “collaboration”, two words sprinkled liberally throughout the April 24th CMS board meeting as well as last night.
One would hope CMS would not deliberately overcrowd a school, nor deny the use of taxpayer facilities out of spite, nor fail to invest in a community that needs public schools due to turf issues or perceived slights.
Bonus issue 2: Charter schools cost public schools money
Another criticism is charter schools weaken existing public schools by siphoning off funding from CMS. Allowing towns to run their own charter school would exacerbate this. Charter school opponents point to a News & Observer article that claims charter schools have cost the Durham Public School district (DPS) $500-700 per student.
I’m confounded by this. What changes is the number of students, but per-pupil spending remains the same (fewer students, fewer dollars). Therefore, the only way public schools “lose” funding is if fixed/overhead costs remain the same or variable costs do not follow enrollment.
The latter is certainly the case. Since 2014/2015 CMS enrollment has increased a mere 1.4%, but the operating budget has increased 7.4%. This trend has continued for a while. Since 2009, student enrollment is up 10% but operating expenditures have increased 18%:
For next year CMS projects a slight decline in enrollment but requested an increase of $40M from the county. This is because CMS has said hiring 240 counselors, social workers and psychologists is a top budget priority.
Whether or not you agree with this budget priority, in the face of static enrollment the operating budget should be static as well. Per the above, this has not been the case for at least a decade.
Regarding fixed costs, as discussed previously these are funded through bond issues. Charter schools receive none of this funding and therefore have no effect on public school capital budgets.
I think I speak for our town and parents everywhere when I say we want CMS to succeed. We share a common goal of ensuring our students have a great education because we know education is a huge lever to future success. We look forward to cooperating with CMS. Second, we have great schools here in Cornelius. Our good schools are one of the reasons why people want to live here.
However, the fortunate state in which we find ourselves today may be a temporary one.
We are faced with the reality of no new schools for the next decade, with Hough High already at 116% of capacity, and with massive development planned for neighboring towns. Because of this, and with an eye toward the future, your town board voted 3-1 for the option to build new classrooms. (Commissioner Ross was in dissent.)
I was out of town for that vote, but I support preserving that option.
Charter school DPS:
Breaking the link article:
DPS $500-700 per student:
Board member quotes:
CMS hard deadline:
Charter school warning:
CMS wants $40M more:
Proposed compromise 1:
Refuse any funding for Matthews:
White flight narrative: