Friday happy-hour fodder

The Center for Education Reform released an analysis of 2006 charter school funding , claiming that charters receive 39 percent less funding than district schools, on average. That's a huge, unfair difference, if it's true.

But is it? Fordham's own such analysis three years ago found gaps that were very troubling, but only about half that size--22 percent on average. True, we only reviewed some of the states, and CER hits them all, but even state-by-state there are big variances. So who's right? If you were hoping for a nerdy data discussion this Friday, you've now found it, as I have a few major concerns about their work.

First, it's worrisome that they rely on a 2006 "Charter School Survey" for some of their data. Did they literally ask schools how much money they received ? Three years ago, Fordham's team found that the only way to get reliable charter information in many states was to unearth school-level audits and add them up. Any good analysis needs to involve something equally rigorous.

Second, it's a huge red flag that they cite the U.S. Census Bureau for district-level data. Our team found its district funding data often included some charter school funding, overstating the actual district-only budgets. These funds couldn't be separated out, making the data worthless.

Third, even accurate district data needs to be purged of certain revenues, like those for adult education, pre-K, or other programs outside of normal K-12 education, in order to have an apples-to-apples comparison. CER may have done so, but it's not mentioned.

So it's not surprising that some of CER's results are, shall we say, surprising. In Florida, we found an 11 percent gap, and CER finds 31 percent; in Michigan, it's 13 percent versus 35 percent; the list goes on. Of course we looked at different years, but huge changes over three years would be odd--school funding changes slowly, not radically.

We commend CER for tackling this problem, and we agree that charters deserve their fair share. But to be worth doing, the analysis has to be done well. Fortunately, my fellow data nerds can look forward to 2009, when I hear there will be a reunion of the team behind Fordham's Charter School Funding report. I'm anxiously counting down the days.

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