Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to clarify that two charter schools with Chapel Hill addresses are in Chatham County.
In Philadelphia, in the early 2010s, under the leadership of Tea Party Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, the city schools faced a budget hole of more than $300 million.
As South Philadelphia High School struggled with no librarian, no music teacher, fewer assistant principals and counselors and one custodian for the entire school, the String Theory charter school in the same city had a motion capture studio.
That story is part of the documentary “Backpack Full of Cash,” which was shown Monday night at Durham Technical Community College. The event was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Public Schools First, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the N.C. Council of Churches.
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The 2016 film, narrated by actor Matt Damon, argues that charter schools have sucked resources from traditional district schools and created a two-tiered system.
A Durham Public Schools board member said at Monday’s screening that what happened in Philadelphia has relevance locally.
“These things that are talked about in Philadelphia and New Orleans have happened in North Carolina and have happened at an incredibly rapid pace,” board member Natalie Beyer said.
Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, so they get their funding from the same pot that funds traditional district schools. Charter organizations also have received major donations from wealthy private donors such as the Walton family and Bill and Melinda Gates.
Critics say charter schools give advantages to students whose parents are engaged enough to enter lotteries to get their children in. Charters don’t face the same oversight as traditional public schools, they note, or mandates to provide transportation and free and reduced-price meals.
The film also tackles school vouchers that give taxpayer money to low-income students to attend private schools. This part of the documentary looks at New Orleans, where the city never re-opened many district schools destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Durham County now has 13 charter schools with nearly 7,000 students attending them. Durham children are also attending charter schools in Alamance and Wake counties, so their school dollars follow them there.
If students decide to leave a charter after the school year has begun and return to a district school, the funding stays with the charter school, creating what Beyer called a “parasitic relationship.”
There are no charters in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district, although there are two in Chatham County with Chapel Hill addresses. There are also two charters in the Orange County Schools district.
“For Chapel Hill schools, in particular, we offer good product for most people, and so it’s not been a much of a challenge,” said CHCCS board member James Barrett, who attended the screening. “But for Orange County Schools, it is. You hear [Superintendent] Todd Wirt talk about how it’s not people that even ever try the Orange County Schools. It’s that marketing thing. They got marketed to, and they decided that they had to go to a charter school.”
DPS spends about $3,300 per pupil to supplement state funding, while CHCCS spends over $5,000 per pupil.
But according to Bob Chapman, a founding board member for the Durham charter Central Park School for Children, charter schools save money.
“They save the taxpayer about 20 percent per child,” he said. Charter schools get no taxpayer funds for facilities, Chapman said, and most fund their own buildings. The Central Park school repurposed an old Army Reserve training center on Foster Street. “Beautiful buildings that have been left to decay have been restored,” he said.
Chapman also disputes the notion, at least for his school, that charters try to avoid students from poorer backgrounds.
Central Park, he said, actually gives more opportunity to lower-income students. There are two lotteries to get in: one only for free- and reduced-lunch students and one for all students. So those who qualify for free lunch get an extra chance to get in.
Chapman did concede that the charter school system does favor children whose parents are engaged in their education. “
You don’t get admitted unless you apply, so if you don’t have a parent who applies, you don’t get admitted,” he said.
Vicky Patton, chair of the Central Park board, said she opposes vouchers and for-profit charters. “There is no money to be made in educating children,” she said.
Charters at a glance
The cap on the maximum number of charter schools allowed in North Carolina (100) was lifted in 2012. That year, nearly 45,000 students were enrolled in charter schools. Currently, 185 charter schools, including two online or virtual charters, operate in North Carolina, serving 101,000 children. Charter school students make up nearly 6.5 percent of the total student population for grades K-12.
Source: Public Schools First NC