A report released last week found that public schools receive an average of $5,721 more per-pupil than charter schools, a gap of 29 percent.
The Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas conducted the study, focusing on 14 cities across the country. In 13 of the 14 cities, public schools received more funding than charters. In 12 of the 14, that funding gap was greater than 10 percent.
The goal of the study was to show that charters and traditional publics are allocated disparate resources, which members of the research team condemned.
“These results should be troubling to anyone who believes that all public school children deserve access to the same amount of funding, regardless of which type of school they choose,” said Larry Maloney, lead researcher of the University of Arkansas team.
The study, titled Charter School Funding: Inequity in the City, examined the four sources of funding that make public education possible: federal, state, local, and nonpublic (donative) sources. It concluded that disparities in local funding sources, like property and sales taxes, are the primary explanation for the gaps, with smaller disparities in federal funds also adding to the inequity. Interestingly, researchers said, prior studies on the topic had focused only on differences in state funding, and had thus failed to discover the prominent gaps.
Charter schools have a reputation for being better-endowed with nonpublic funding in the form of charitable grants and individual donations than publics, but this turns out to be mostly a misperception, according to the study. While nonpublic sources did provide more funding to charters than public schools in general, that difference was miniscule and not enough to counterbalance the other disparities. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the charter schools studied received no revenue at all from nonpublic sources.
The study did not evaluate whether some charter schools’ practice of using for-profit management companies had any further impact on the gaps. “We’re just looking at what’s coming in, not what’s being siphoned off for a for-profit system,” explained Malone. Thus, the gaps could be even larger for charters that go that route.
The findings run counter to the perception that charter schools operate with deeper pockets than traditional public schools.
But that’s no reason to suggest that public schools are immune to the pressures of advancing competition. Nationwide charter school enrollment spiked by more than 60 percent between 2011 and 2016. While charter schools might well receive less funding overall, the amount of money that public schools stand to lose when students leave for newer alternatives is not insignificant.
Recently, we reported that the LA Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest public school system, loses millions in per-pupil funding per year to charter school enrollment. One school researcher estimated in a Washington Post interview that Michigan school districts have lost 22 percent of their funding to charters and other school alternatives.
With the Trump administration’s call for expanded school choice, the funding gap between traditional public schools and charters will likely narrow. As that happens, school leaders on both sides will look to innovation to ensure their institutions stay competitive, inside the classroom and out.
What steps is your district taking to stay competitive in the age of choice? Is it possible to face mounting funding deficits and still drive innovation? Tell us in the comments.