Chatham education leaders voice opposition to ‘school choice’ bills


More than a dozen bills filed in the N.C. General Assembly’s legislative session focus on expanding funding for charter schools and increasing the state’s voucher programs for private schools. 

These bills, primarily sponsored by Republican lawmakers, are each written in the name of “school choice.”

But Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Dist. 54), who represents Chatham County and is the House Minority Leader in the state legislature, says “school choice” is a misnomer. He — along with officials from Chatham County Schools and the Chatham Education Foundation — pushed against many of these bills because he says they detract from funding that should be used for public schools.

“It’s a disappointing direction we’ve been going,” Reives said of his colleagues in the General Assembly. “They say it’s a zero-sum game — either we put that money into public education or we’re putting it into charter schools, etc.”

Despite Reives disapproval of the legislation, many of these bills aimed at expanding vouchers and funding for charter schools seem poised to become law because of the Republican supermajority in both the N.C. House of Representatives and the state Senate. This means both chambers have enough votes to override a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper. Republicans gained the double supermajority last month when Rep. Tricia Cotham (R-Dist. 112) switched her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.

GOP members in Raleigh have made school choice one of their top priorities with their newfound power, so it’s worth examining how the additional funding may impact Chatham County Schools, and what local education advocates are saying about the measures. 

‘Unfair advantage’ 

At April’s Chatham County Board of Education meeting, the board passed a resolution in opposition to one of these “school choice” bills: House Bill 219, “Charter School Omnibus.”

H.B. 219 would allow charter schools to claim a share of previously protected funding raised to support local public school systems. Chatham’s school board unanimously approved the resolution opposing the bill, saying it would “create an unfair advantage by requiring local districts to share funds … with local charter schools.”

The resolution states that allowing charter schools to access funding raised specifically for traditional public schools would further deplete their resources. 

“As we monitor this bill, we see a multitude of concerns regarding the financial impact the passing of this bill will have on our schools and ultimately, our students,” Emily Emrick, public relations coordinator for Chatham County Schools, said.

Chatham isn’t the only county to sign onto a resolution opposing this specific bill. Other school boards — including those in Cabarrus, Macon, New Hanover and Stanly counties — have also signed similar resolutions in opposition to H.B. 219. 

The bill was referred to the House Education Committee last Thursday. The primary sponsors of H.B. 219 — Rep. Torbett (R-Dist. 108), Rep. Bradford (R-Dist. 98), Rep. Willis (R-Dist. 68) and Rep. Saine (R-Dist. 97) — did not respond to requests for comment from the News + Record. 

Gary Leonard, chairperson of the Chatham County Board of Education, said this bill in particular would have a “tremendous effect” on Chatham County Schools because it would limit the ability of the district to provide needed services for students.

“My job as a board member is to be an advocate for our students,” Leonard said. “There are certain aspects of this bill in particular that would hit us awfully hard.”

Jaime Detzi, executive director of the Chatham Education Foundation, also said she opposed the bill. CEF writes grants for public schools for things like innovative teaching, growing library collections or after-school programs. This bill, Detzi said, would give potential funding to charter schools for grants written specifically for CCS schools. 

“Those schools have their own education foundations that are doing great work,” Detzi said. “They are already writing their own grants, and they’re not going to have to share their grants with us. So it just seemed kind of odd.”

Leonard said the resolution by the board was not meant to diminish the work of local charter schools, but rather to look at the issue systematically. Leonard has a unique personal perspective on the issue because he was a teacher at Chatham Charter School for more than a decade. He also taught at Chatham Central High School. 

While he valued his time at Chatham Charter, he said bootstrapping funding was rarely part of the conversation like it is in Chatham’s public schools. If H.B. 219 were to be passed, Leonard said he fears the gaps between charter and public schools would widen. 

“If those dollars are made available to flow wherever, I worry that it will hurt the enrollment at our other schools,” he said.

Leonard added CCS does a good job with the funding it has available, but if that funding were to dwindle further, it may lead those of higher socioeconomic status to opt for charter or private schools instead. Meanwhile, he said, those of lower socioeconomic status would get left behind.

Several proposals in the legislature provide funding for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to attend private or charter schools. The problem, according to Leonard, is that those schools aren’t required under state law to provide the same wrap-around services as traditional public schools. That includes things like transportation, mental health services, special needs accommodations, or free school lunches.

“Our schools have always been community hubs, especially in more rural areas,” Leonard said. “I worry we may lose those community hubs to other places, and that concerns me because I feel like our schools make up the Chatham community spirit and pride.”

‘Apples to oranges’

Part of the argument for expanding funding for charter and private schools is that those schools consistently do better on test scores and are graded higher on the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction’s Accountability Index.

For example, Woods Charter and Chatham Charter both earned a “B” on NCDPI’s school performance grades for 2021-2022 and a majority of students at both schools achieved proficiency in all testing subjects. In CCS, seven of 19 schools earned a “B” grade or higher and six schools had a majority of students above proficiency.

While the NCDPI’s testing data seems to indicate charter schools are the better option, those figures don’t account for socioeconomic factors and the populations of charter schools versus public schools. Compared to their public school counterparts, Chatham’s two charter schools have higher percentages of white students, lower percentages of students who are considered “economically disadvantaged” by NCDPI, lower percentages of students with disabilities and lower percentages of English Second Language students.

The demographics of the schools don’t discount their achievements, but all of these outside factors influence test scores, which in turn influence proficiency rates and NCDPI’s Accountability grades.

Those grades also don’t account for growth — a metric CCS often touts from its “lower-performing schools.” For example, Virginia Cross Elementary School received a “D” grade from NCDPI, but it exceeded growth in all subject areas, showing its students improved substantially from year to year. 

“You’re comparing apples to oranges when you’re talking about public versus charter,” Detzi said. “Our charter schools just don’t look like our public schools.” 

When charter schools were first established by the N.C. General Assembly in 1996, they were meant to bring experimental education and innovations into the public school system. Since then, charter schools have boomed across the state to more than 200 — serving more than 122,000 students by the 2020-2021 school year.

“I don’t want to put any school down, because when you do, you’re putting children down,” Leonard said. “Any teacher, any school has an obligation to make its students better and help them grow, and I feel like all our schools in Chatham County do that.”

Not a golden ticket 

Detzi said several bills under consideration in the legislature, especially those aimed at expanding private school vouchers, fail to take accountability for use of public funds in education. 

A voucher works as a scholarship for K-12 students to attend a private school. They are funded with state money with a value of up to $6,500, which is less than the amount of per student state spending for the average public school student. This year, North Carolina is spending $133 million for 25,000 students to attend private schools, and about 90% of those students attend religious schools, according to data from the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority and reporting by WUNC.

Private schools, unlike public schools, do not have to report accountability data to the state. Detzi argues that by spending public dollars on private schools, that may lead to a lack of reporting about student achievement, growth and curriculum.

This week, CEF plans to sign on to a resolution by the Public School Forum’s N.C. Education Partners in opposition to a slew of voucher bills in the General Assembly including Senate Bill 406, House Bill 823 and House Bill 420. The resolution states each of these bills “would significantly increase state funding provided in the form of vouchers for students to enroll in private and parochial schools (schools affiliated with a church). 

“We believe all taxpayer education dollars should be adequate and equitable so all N.C. students can meet their hopes and dreams,” the CEF resolution reads. “We believe that all taxpayer dollars spent on education should have public accountability standards and reporting.”   

The original intention of vouchers was to help low-income families attend private schools. Data suggests, however, the vouchers are not being taken by low-income residents — and bills in the NCGA, including S.B. 406, may eliminate the voucher income cap altogether. 

Reducing that income cap is aimed at sending more students to private schools, but Detzi said passing that tab along to taxpayers isn’t fair or sound economics.  

“I think that the system is better for all students when money is put into accountable systems,” Detzi said. “And that does not include private schools.”

Reives agreed. He said North Carolina already has school choice as is, but under these proposed changes, it would lead to a further stripping of resources for public schools.

It should be a “no brainer,” Revies said, to bolster public schools to make them equal to their counterparts with populations of higher socioeconomic status. 

“What our North Carolina Constitution says is every single child has the right to a sound, basic education,” Reives said. “We’re not doing that when we’re putting education up for grabs.”

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at or on Twitter @b_rappaport

School choice, N.C. General Assembly, charter schools, Chatham County Schools, Rep. Robert Reives, private school vouchers