Politics & Policy

Underfunded Charters

Give the schools a fighting chance.

Charter schools in the U.S. are being deprived of essential funding in nearly every community and state they are found. A deadly combination of powerful enemies, political compromise, and wishful thinking has placed the fledgling charter-school experiment in grave jeopardy. Such schools are now expected to work educational miracles without the needed resources.

The fiscal gap between charter and district schools is as wide as $3,500 per student in Missouri and South Carolina. In Atlanta, San Diego, and Greenville, the gap exceeds 40 percent.

These data and more are contained in “Charter School Funding: Inequity’s Next Frontier,” released this week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in conjunction with the Progress Analytics Institute and Public Impact. Drawing on information from 2002-2003 in 17 states and 27 cities, it is the most comprehensive analysis ever undertaken of the public dollars that do and don’t flow into charter schools and how these compare with district-school budgets in the same places.

The bottom line should alarm those who want America’s charter-school experiment to have a full opportunity to prove itself. The current arrangements bear the hallmark of a misguided or rigged policy process; the finance ground rules appear designed to produce failure on the part of charter schools across America.

As school opens this fall, about a million kids will turn up in some 3,500 charter schools. A fine start to a grand experiment. But how large could it get? What’s the latent demand? The potential supply? The range of decent education options that charters could furnish children in an era when even the federal government says they should not be trapped in failing district schools? We’ll never know if a tight fiscal lid continues to sit atop charter schools.

I’m no fan of the “money is what we need” approach to school reform. I’ve seen too many lavishly-funded schools that do a lousy job and more than a few impoverished schools that work wonders. We all know that millions of education dollars accomplish nothing, that the efficiency of public schools in general is woeful, and that their productivity is lamentable.

But when you consider how egregiously charter schools are being shortchanged by the public, then observe how educationally needy are many of the kids enrolling in them, then contemplate the extra efforts–the longer days and weeks and years–that the best of these schools are making on their students’ behalf… well, even a school-spending skeptic may fairly conclude that these schools are being asked to make bricks with far too little straw.

States and communities vary, but the average discrepancy between charter-school and district-school funding turns out to be almost 22 percent, which translates to $1,800 per pupil. For an average-size charter school, that means a $450,250 hole in its budget.

Consider what a 250-pupil school could do with $450,000. It could hire eight more teachers or a dozen aides. It could build science labs, create Internet access and stock the library. It could bring tutors into its afterschool or summer program. It could fix the roof, run a full-day kindergarten or hire reading and math specialists. It could expand its athletic or musical opportunities. The list goes on. If you asked charter schools’ cash-strapped but enterprising principals, they would swiftly name a dozen more things that their schools urgently need to do right by their children. And since basic school financing is an annual thing, not a one-time windfall like a charitable gift or federal start-up grant, the following year would bring another $450,000 with which to tackle still more urgent projects.

States’ self-imposed constitutional duty to provide all their citizens with free public education means they have an ineradicable obligation to provide every child in the state with substantially equal education resources. That’s true no matter where in the state a child lives–and whether he enrolls in a district-run or charter school.

Granted, charter partisans and their policymaking allies have not always paid close attention to the financing side, nor steadfastly demanded their fair share of the public-education dollar. Being insecure about their basic existence, accustomed to policy persecution of many kinds, and in the habit of making do with less, many have settled too meekly for crumbs from the school-finance table. Elected officials sometimes exacerbate this by promising not only that charter schools will deliver superior education but that they will do so for less money, thus leaving school operators hard-pressed to complain that they do not, in reality, have enough money to do the job properly.

It’s one thing to say that quality public education should be provided more economically than it usually is. Right on, I say. It’s quite another thing to expect charter schools to perform educational miracles on a pittance–even as the per-pupil funding that remains in their surrounding school systems rises with every youngster who exits for a charter school.

The primary means of short-funding of charter schools–above all, the denial of access to local payments and facilities dollars–could be rectified by amending state charter laws. A stroke of the policymaker’s pen is all that’s needed.

We won’t know whether charter schools “work” unless we give them a proper test, and then compare the results with district-operated schools. But it’s not a proper test when we make them enter the ring with one hand tied behind their backs.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Chester E. Finn Jr. — Mr. Finn is the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.


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