(Guest Post by Patrick J. Wolf)
In the 23 years since the first charter school law was passed in Minnesota, charter schooling has gained substantial public legitimacy and support. Public charter schools enrolled more than 2 million school children in over 6,000 schools in 41 states plus the District of Columbia in the 2012‒13 school year. The three most recent U.S. presidents and their respective Secretaries of Education all have been vocal supporters of charter schooling. When the popular new mayor of New York City, Bill De Blasio, recently threatened to exclude public charter schools from space they shared with traditional public schools in the city, his popularity plummeted, leading him to beat a hasty retreat from the proposal.
Since public charter schools are becoming increasingly popular politically and therefore common in the U.S., we might expect that they would be funded at levels comparable to traditional public schools. We would be mistaken. An expert research team that I organized and Larry Maloney led systematically collected and reviewed audited financial statements from the 2010‒11 school year for the 30 states and the District of Columbia with substantial charter school populations. We carefully tracked all the revenues committed to public charter and traditional public schools from every source, public and private.
We identified a funding gap of 28.3 percent, meaning that the average public charter school student in the U.S. is receiving $3,800 less in funding than the average traditional public school student. Since the average charter school enrolls 400 students, the average public charter school in the U.S. received $1,520,000 less in per-pupil funding in 2010‒11 than it would have received if it had been a traditional public school. The gap is even higher in major cities where charter schools are more commonly found. Kudos to the Volunteer State of Tennessee, however, as it is the only state that provides equity in charter school funding.
The fact that some students attending public schools receive less funding than others, merely because the word “charter” is in the school’s name, may seem shocking. Isn’t all public school funding within a state or locality based on a common student formula? Actually, no. As detailed in our study, both public charter schools and traditional public schools receive much of their revenue from sources outside of per-pupil state allocations. These include federal categorical aid programs that can include both public charter schools and traditional public schools or just one and not the other, plus local funding raised through property taxes, as well as private sources such as philanthropies and bank interest.
Of the four major sources of revenue for public schools, local funding, or rather the lack of it, is the largest factor in the charter school funding gap. Public charter schools receive only an average of $1,819 per pupil from local government sources while traditional public schools receive a whopping $5,222. On average, charters get somewhat more state money than traditional public schools, while receiving somewhat less federal money. Although there is a perception that public charter schools are handsomely funded by private sources, our research shows that traditional public schools received slightly more private funds per-pupil in 2010‒11 than public charter schools.
The first systematic study of charter school funding equity, Charter School Funding: Inequity’s Next Frontier, conducted by the Fordham Institute in 2005, revealed that per-pupil funding was 21.7 percent lower in public charter schools relative to traditional public schools. A follow-up study, Charter School Funding: Inequity Persists, by Ball State University in 2010, found a funding gap of 19.2 percent remained. Many of the same researchers who conducted those pioneering studies were re-assembled for this latest project and discovered to great surprise that the inequity in public charter school funding has actually grown of late.
This is a careful study of the documented sources and amounts of revenue received by public charter and traditional public schools nationally, within individual states, and in major cities within states. It is a descriptive report of the financial realities in the two public school sectors. Although the report tells us conclusively that public charter schools tend to receive less money, and local government funds are most clearly responsible for the inequity, it cannot tell us in all cases exactly why local governments provide students in public charter schools with so much less money for their education than they provide students in traditional public schools. Still, policy makers need to confront the reality that public school students are getting short-changed, financially, if they happen to attend public charter schools. Charter students are superstars just like district students. Show them the money!