Moore County needs to reckon with how it funds its students who attend charter schools. It might not be this year, but sometime soon, revision to the process is essential. Because failure to change is putting all our schoolchildren at a disadvantage.
Charter schools occupy an interstitial layer between Moore County Schools and truly private schools. While they are public schools, their operations and requirements vary in key areas.
Their funding is also somewhat of a hybrid. A charter school is eligible to receive the same per-pupil cost as a public school, but it gets no funding for things like meals, transportation and construction support from the state.
Like many other parts of North Carolina, charter schools have grown in popularity over the last several years. Moore County has three charter schools — The Academy of Moore in Aberdeen, STARS Charter in Vass, and the new Moore Montessori in Southern Pines — and their enrollments are growing.
About 850 students attend the three charters, up from 684 just last year. More than half of those children never attended Moore County Schools. That’s where the money problem begins.
A Net Loss
Moore County Schools acts as a “pass through” agent to the charter schools for funding. It writes a check covering the per-pupil cost for each student — regardless if they’ve ever attended a traditional public school.
For a child who has attended a public school and then transferred enrollment to a charter, this is simply moving the funding from one to the other. But for children who have never attended a traditional public school, the school system is stroking a check to cover a cost it never incurred.
This year, that local cost from Moore County is $2,153.11 per child, according to a presentation the Board of Education saw earlier this year. In total, MCS will pay $1.8 million to the charter schools this year to cover those 851 kids, a 15 percent increase from last year. The cost next year is projected to be more than $2 million.
Remember, more than half of this money is covering students who never spent a day in Moore County Schools, so when it writes a check for that expense, it is not merely transferring that expense. It’s a net loss that gets covered by other areas of the budget.
Yes, the net local budget for Moore County Schools this past year — $29.5 million — had $1.8 million come off the top for children not in Moore County Schools.
This is not sustainable.
Find a Sustainable Solution
The Board of Education, as part of its budget request this year, has asked the Board of Commissioners to consider creating a separate fund for charters. The county would pay into that fund the per-pupil cost for all charter students who never attended Moore County Schools. MCS would continue covering out of its budget the students who had attended a public school once and then transferred.
Had that arrangement been in place, Moore County Schools would have been able to retain more than $1 million that could have funded myriad needs that otherwise went unmet.
Charter schools are here to stay in North Carolina, and they serve an important strand for those parents seeking an alternative educational opportunity. So it’s critical they operate with all the appropriate funding — and oversight and transparency — of public schools.
But this system of building in their allocation to the overall school budget is antiquated at best. Seven years ago, when the expense was $670,000, that was one thing. But now we’re going to be talking about more than $2 million.
The percentage of the money leaking out of the system has gone from 3.8 percent five years ago to almost double that in the coming year. This is not sustainable for our children.