Most public school officials won’t be shy if you ask them how a charter school impacts their local budgets. For every student who is eligible to enroll in a traditional public school but chooses to attend a charter, the student’s home school system must send the charter a chunk of money. In short, the money follows the student through the public system.

At a meeting of the State Board of Education (SBE) this morning in Raleigh, one state official likened the payments to alimony—painful in many cases, but necessary by law. In a district such as Durham County, with eight charter schools, the pass-through money totals more than $10 million a year, according to a recent statement from Durham Superintendent Eric Becoats. Durham has the highest market share of charter schools in the state, Becoats wrote. (PDF)

But will that stop the SBE from approving any more charters in Durham? It’s hard to say.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the SBE is scheduled to consider nine applications for new charter schools to open this fall. Board members will merely discuss this week, and take a final vote in the beginning of March.

The board reviewed impact statements that school districts provided on the nine pending applications, said Joel Medley, director of the state’s Office of Charter Schools. But moving forward, board members agreed, they need more specific policies on what data the impact statements should include, and how the impact statements would figure into their decisions.

Reports from local school districts are varied and inconsistent—if the districts even send one—that there’s really no standard for the weight they should carry as SBE members consider a charter application. The board discussed identifying specific questions that school districts should answer. Chairman Bill Harrison said the board needs to discuss how the board should weigh the impact on traditional public schools without creating inroads or barriers for either side.

Say, for instance, a school district gets to a point where half its students are enrolled in a charter school, Harrison said. “Is that [school district] going to provide an efficient education for the children who are remaining? It could be debatable, but probably not,” he said. But, the state also can’t definitively say that once a school district loses half its students, the charter can’t expand any more, he said.

“I think we need to frame this conversation,” Harrison said. “It’s an important time in the history of public education in North Carolina … and it’s my preference and my desire that we strengthen the opportunities for all kids.”

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction is expecting to receive 50 to 70 more applications for new or expanded charter schools in April, Medley said. Expecting the slew, the SBE needs to work quickly on setting some more specific parameters, board members agreed.

“We don’t know where this is going, but we do know this is time sensitive,” said board member Wayne McDevitt, of Marshall.

Look for this topic to come up again when the state board begins its monthly meeting Wednesday at 10 a.m. and stretches to Thursday. Look for coverage on Staff Writer Bob Geary’s blog, Citizen.