Study: Charter schools lag behind traditional schools in public funding

Maine Gov. Paul LePage speaks in favor of charter schools during a news conference in the State House on April 1, 2013.
Christopher Cousins | Bangor Daily News
Maine Gov. Paul LePage speaks in favor of charter schools during a news conference in the State House on April 1, 2013. Buy Photo
Posted April 18, 2013, at 10 a.m.

Public charter schools received significantly less funding than traditional public schools in five U.S. cities between 2007 and 2011, according to a new study released Wednesday.

When it comes to per-pupil spending, Washington had the largest gap, with public charter schools getting $16,361 per student in fiscal 2011 and traditional public schools getting $29,145, about $13,000 more per student, according to the study.

Those amounts represent total funding, include federal, state, and local tax dollars and private support from foundations.

The study comes as lawmakers in Maine, where the state’s first two charter schools opened last year and as many as three more could open this fall, continue to consider how to fund public charter schools and traditional school equitably.

The study, funded by the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation, analyzed private and public dollars spent to educate students in the Denver, Newark, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Washington. It is scheduled to be published in the Journal of School Choice this year.

Charter schools are publicly financed but operate independently of local school systems. They are usually nonunionized. The amount of public dollars they receive is generally determined by the state and varies widely.

In fiscal 2011, traditional public schools in the District of Columbia received, per student, 43.9 percent more total dollars — private and public — than charter schools. Traditional public schools also received substantially more in the four other cities studied: in Newark, the difference was 39 percent; in Los Angeles, 34.7 percent; in Denver, 19.4 percent; and in Milwaukee, 31.4 percent.

Larry Maloney, the lead researcher, said his analysis suggests that although the number of charter schools is growing, when it comes to funding, states have created a two-tier public education system.

“I look at a student attending a public school as a student attending a public school,” said Maloney, who is president of Aspire Consulting. “But we are now developing a funding mechanism that treats students differently, based on the public school they attend. If you attend a [traditional] district school, you’re much more likely to have access to more funds.”

Critics of public charter schools have long suggested that they have an economic advantage over traditional public schools because they have attracted financial support from philanthropies.

The Walton Family Foundation, for example, spent more than $158 million in 2012 to help support charter schools in 16 cities, including the District of Columbia. More than 40 percent of public school students attend a charter school in the city, making it second only to New Orleans in terms of charter penetration.

But Maloney said his analysis shows that foundations have been reducing their contributions to traditional public schools and charters. In 2007, the Washington public school system received 1.9 percent of its budget from private sources; that dropped slightly, to 1.6 percent, in 2011. Meanwhile, public charter schools got 10.2 percent of their budgets from foundations in fiscal 2007, which dropped to 6.3 percent in fiscal 2011, Maloney found.

“I was surprised in the decline of [private] revenue,” he said. “That’s what charters have relied on to close the gap, and it appears they no longer can.”

District of Columbia law requires equal per-pupil allocations for public charter and traditional public schools. But traditional public schools receive additional local tax dollars for facilities and support services that charters do not. For example, the city’s capital construction agency contributed $314 million to Washington public schools for facilities in fiscal 2011, money that was not available to charter schools.

Maloney said large, nationally prominent charter operators such as KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) still receive a significant amount of financial help from private foundations. But smaller, individual charter schools have been getting less help from private donors, especially since the 2008 recession, he said.

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