Why Are We Cheating Public Charter Schools Out of Funding?

Real Clear Education | By Tressa Pankovits | September 8, 2023

You wouldn’t pay steakhouse prices for a fast-food burger, would you? Didn’t think so.

So, why do we send the lion’s share of our public K-12 education dollars to schools that can’t keep up with the financially lean education machines that outperform them?

I’m talking about public charter schools, of course. These free, public schools that disproportionately serve low-income and minority children are the subject of two recently released independent studies. Taking the studies together, pragmatic thinkers might wonder how we could be so indifferent to blatant discrimination against our most marginalized students.

The first report is the latest in a series by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. CREDO compared the education experience of public charter school students to their demographic “twins” in the traditional public schools (TPS) that those charter school students would have otherwise attended.

CREDO defines “student performance” as the amount of academic growth students made over a school year for four consecutive years. CREDO presents its data about student outcomes measured in “days of learning.” Students either achieved more or fewer “days of learning” than a typical 180-day public school year. The study created the largest dataset of its kind, with more than 6.5 million student observations. It captured academic outcomes for 81% of the nation’s public school students who took standardized state tests.

The second study, also part of a series, is by the University of Arkansas’s School Choice Demonstration Project (UA). It evaluates disparities between the amount of funding provided to TPS and public charter schools in 18 cities. The study is significant in that it goes beyond merely measuring state and federal funding formulas. UA researchers examined total revenue, including assigning value to “in kind” resources that public charters get from their geographic district for things like transportation or special education services. 

Guess what? CREDO found that, on average, public charter school students demonstrate significantly more academic growth (about 36% more in reading and math), while the UA found that charter schools get significantly less funding (30% on average) than TPS. In some cases, the strongest public charter school outperformance occurs in states with cities where charter schools are most inequitably funded.

For example, UA’s researchers discovered that Camden, New Jersey’s charter schools suffer the most inequitable funding among the cities they studied, despite enrolling nearly 60% of the city’s children. New Jersey sends Camden’s TPS $55,075 per pupil, while it sends just $14,164 per pupil funding to Camden’s public charter schools.

UA researchers gave Camden’s TPS credit for public monies that simply “pass through” the district before they are distributed to charters and other nontraditional public schools. They also added up all federal and nonpublic revenues for both TPS and charters. When all credits and debits are totaled, Camden’s TPS get almost double the amount of per-pupil funding of Camden’s charter schools – resulting in a 49.8% ($19,711) funding deficit for Camden’s charters, the second largest charter funding deficit in the nation behind Atlanta’s 52.7%.

Meanwhile, CREDO found that New Jersey charter school students received 33 additional “days of reading learning,” and 32 more “days of math learning” than their TPS counterparts.

In an earlier study focused specifically on Camden, CREDO again used “days of learning” as its metric and benchmarked it against statewide student growth averages. While Camden’s charter schools have the largest per-pupil funding disparity in dollar terms (and the second-highest in terms of percentage gap) with TPS, Camden’s charter school students outperformed TPS students in both reading and math. Camden’s TPS lagged below state averages, with students gaining 120 fewer days of reading learning and almost 60 fewer days of math learning than the state average. In particular, the researchers found that Camden black and Hispanic students who attend charter schools “post significantly stronger growth in reading and similar gains in math compared to TPS students of the same race.”

Reviewing the CREDO and UA reports side-by-side, it’s clear that Camden is not an outlier. Indianapolis, for example, has the third-largest funding gap (42.5%) between TPS and charter schools among the cities studied Despite operating with $7,863 less per pupil than TPS, Indianapolis charter students made learning gains in both reading and math on par with state averages, while Indianapolis TPS students showed weaker learning gains than average in both subjects. Again, low-income and minority charter school students kept up with state averages, while TPS students did not.

Chicago is next, funding its TPS 35.8% more than its public charters, thus shorting the charters $8,633 per student each year. Despite that handicap, 47% of Chicago’s 58 top-rated, high-need schools (with more than 90% minority and 90% low-income students) are public charters. Charter public schools account for more than half of the low-income, majority-black schools that “beat the odds,” despite making up just 18% of all schools citywide.

The pattern repeats over and over. San Antonio’s TPS get $2,835, or 18.3%, more per student than charters, but the city’s charter schools showed stronger academic growth. Washington, D.C. charters are shorted $4,245 per student, a 13.9% gap. But D.C.’s black charter school students show similar growth in reading and math as the average black student in the city, while black TPS students underperform in math compared to the average among black students in the city. Denver’s funding gap is smaller, at “only” 7%, or $1,298 less per student annually. Yet here again, black students in charters post stronger growth than black TPS students in both subjects.

Clearly, public charter schools are doing more with less. But it’s getting harder for them to do so. The 2022 National Assessment of Education Progress (a.k.a. “the nation’s report card”) proved that students suffered profound learning loss while schools were closed during the pandemic – in many cases for far longer than needed.

And the funding gaps between TPS and public charter schools are trending in the wrong direction. Atlanta, with the largest gap, underfunded its charter schools by 37.7% in the 2002–2003 school year. In 2019–2020, that gap grew to 52.7%. Chicago’s gap went from 23.1% to 35.8% over the same period, and Detroit went from a 15.2% funding inequity to a 35.3% gap.

No wonder philanthropists concerned about poor kids and the quality of the nation’s future workforce are opening their wallets to support public charter schools. Imagine what charter schools could do if much appreciated random acts of generosity were replaced with reliable, equitable funding. Instead of their challenged student populations just keeping up with often dismal state averages, they’d be soaring ahead.

Given charter schools’ large, minority, urban populations, it’s a head-scratcher as to why more minority parents aren’t protesting this blatant discrimination by state legislators and elected school board members.

Perhaps an awareness campaign is in order. It worked in Milwaukee, where the nonprofit City Forward Collective helped knit together a grassroots network of more than 1,000 parents, school leaders, and community members and educated them about the inequities. Together, they prevailed on lawmakers – including Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers – to boost Milwaukee public charter school funding by about $2,500 per student starting this school year.

It’s high time more policymakers felt similar pressure.

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