Defining “Fair” Funding: Another Public/Charter School Battleground

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June 11, 2015; Arizona Daily Star

Public education is funded by a complex mixture of federal, state, and local funding. Some funds are developed and available to be allocated on a per-pupil basis, while other funds are designated for specific purposes, such as capital improvements, special education, transportation, and so forth. To further complicate this picture, in some states, charter schools are not limited to serving students from just one local school district, making the meaning of local funding less clear.

States have developed funding formulae designed to cut through these complexities and provide fair and adequate funding to the charters schools they support. In absolute dollars, the result has been a lower level of per-pupil funding for charter school students and a growing controversy about whether this result is right and fair. Charter school advocates have turned to both the courts and their state legislatures seeking changes that would increase their funding.

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled last week in a suit brought by charter school advocates and parents of charter students that it would not overturn an earlier appellate court ruling that found that unequal funding levels were legal and could continue. According to the Arizona Daily Star, in the earlier ruling Appellate Judge Margaret Downie said that “charter schools do not have some of the same administrative regulations as district schools. They need not hire certified teachers, and are not required to follow the same procedures for hiring and firing staff.” Moreover, “they can specialize in certain subject areas or even just certain grades, can give preference in enrollment to siblings of existing students, and can even limit enrollment to a single gender, all options not available to traditional schools.” Therefore, they were not entitled to equal funding.

In a response, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Nina Rees released the following statement on the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the ruling:

“By refusing to hear this case, the Arizona Supreme Court has told the parents of children in Arizona public charter schools that their children can be treated as second class citizens. Sadly, inequitable funding is the norm across the country, with the average charter school receiving 28.4 percent less funding than their traditional charter school counterparts. It’s no wonder we have seen a growing number of lawsuits from parents demanding equal funding for their children’s public charter schools.”

The suit was one of a number of challenges in recent months by charter school advocates who assert that they are not being fairly funded. For example, in Baltimore, charter school proponents recently rejected a proposal by their school board that would fund charter schools at a rate of $9,387 per-pupil next year. (The proponents calculate it should be set at a level of $10,010.) And a complaint filed in federal court by the D.C. Association of Public Chartered Public Schools, Eagle Academy, and Washington Latin public charter schools contends the city shorted charter school funding by more than $770 million, or $1,600 to $2,600 per pupil.

The complexity of the issue was described by Luis Huerta, a Columbia University professor, who said the “simple aggregated accounting of charter school funding compared to traditional schools is shortsighted, if it does not fully account for school level indicators” like student population and types of services provided. “The debate should not focus solely on how much funding is provided but also include a full accounting on whether charter schools are delivering the same level and types of services to all students, compared to traditional schools.”

With school choice remaining a key component of many advocates for “reform” of our nation’s public school systems and with growing the number of charter schools being the main tactic for actualizing choice, this funding debate will continue to be on the agenda of state and local leadership. And it will be compounded by pressures on state and local budgets that make any real increase in school funding difficult if not impossible.—Marty Levine