- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A non-profit group that has lobbied to increase public charter schools and private education vouchers could soon be in charge of allocating taxpayer money to new and proposed charters to help get them started.

The budget proposal being considered by the General Assembly may break new ground in state spending by letting Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina decide which fledgling charter schools get a piece of $1 million a year, N.C. Center for Nonprofits vice president David Heinen said.

“This is probably unique to have a completely independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit having discretion without a lot of criteria,” said Heinen, citing the chapter of federal tax law describing charity and educational groups. “I don’t know of any other that is quite like this.”

A charter school is publicly funded but operates with fewer rules than traditional schools.

The provision included in the House budget survived a challenge last month on a 62-51 vote, with members of both parties expressing concern. If the language is adopted after negotiations with the Senate, PEFNC would work to help charter schools take root outside the state’s urban areas where they have clustered, said Darrell Allison, the group’s president.

State money wouldn’t pay PEFNC’s $400,000 yearly administration and public relations costs for its three-year-old charter school “accelerator” project, but the non-profit could leverage its new responsibility to persuade foundations to boost PEFNC’s current budget, Allison said. The project trains charter school board members and school leaders in overseeing academics, management and finances.

“Our current supporters are already supporting us with the accelerator, and in the future we intend to strengthen that support,” Allison said.

PEFNC is one of the state’s leading advocates for expanding choice beyond the public school classrooms that educate about 1.5 million students a year, said Eddie Goodall, executive director of the NC Public Charter Schools Association. The group promotes and provides services to its charter school members.

PEFNC in 2011 pushed for and won an end to a statewide limit of 100 charter schools that had been in force for 15 years. There will be 162 when 16 new charters open in August.

In 2012, the group lobbied but failed to get a new law that would have allowed corporations to divert tax payments they owe to private school tuition scholarships. Organizations selected to run the scholarships could have kept millions of dollars for administrative costs after the program’s first two years. PEFNC paid $8,300 to send a bi-partisan group of 11 lawmakers including then-House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, to Florida to learn about that state’s long-running model.

PEFNC also is a key advocate of a 2013 law that created taxpayer-funded scholarships to pay student tuition at private and religious schools.

The group has roughly doubled its revenues since 2011, the year Republicans became strong majorities in the General Assembly, to the $2 million annual budget Allison said it has now.

In 2013, the last year for which the group has filed a required federal tax report, more than half of its $1.8 million in income came from the Washington-based Alliance for School Choice. The national voucher advocacy group is chaired by Betsy DeVos, whose husband is an Amway Corp. heir. Her brother is Erik Prince, who helped create the former North Carolina-based security firm Blackwater.

PEFNC also received $710,000 in 2013 from the Walton Family Foundation, created by Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

Allison is also president of an affiliated tax-exempt organization which isn’t required to publicly disclose donors. Partners for Educational Freedom In NC reported revenues of $500,000 in 2013, the bulk of it spent on lobbying, advertising and promotion to advocate “methods of expanding educational opportunities,” according to its IRS report. It contributed nearly $76,000 to state candidates of both political parties over six years through 2014, according to state election board reports.

Lawmakers have long allocated money to non-profits and directed how to spend the money, like detailing how many recent college graduates Teach for America should recruit to teach in rural or inner-city public schools and where to expand. In recent years, legislators have moved toward allotting funds to a state agency and telling that agency to get non-profits to compete showing they are best at delivering a public service, Heinen said.

Under current legislative language, PEFNC could distribute up to $100,000 to a company or community group applying for State Board of Education permission to operate a charter. PEFNC will focus on funding applications of established charters with at least three years of academic and financial success that seek to open a new location, Allison said.

Money also could go to support charter organizers during a required, year-long readiness effort.

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at https://twitter.com/emerydalesio


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