Making education bricks without straw

U.S. charter schools are being deprived of essential funding in nearly every community and state where they are found. A deadly combination of powerful enemies, political compromise, and wishful thinking has placed the fledgling charter-school experiment in grave jeopardy: 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, Greenville, and San Diego, it exceeds 40 percent.

These data and many more are contained in Charter School Funding: Inequity's Next Frontier, an important and alarming new study released this week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in conjunction with the Progress Analytics Institute and Public Impact. Supported by the Gates and Walton foundations, and based 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 do not flow into public charter schools and how these compare with district-school budgets in the same places.

The bottom line should command the urgent attention of policymakers. Charter fans will likely grow angry (and perhaps litigious) based on what they read in this report, and they would be justified. The current arrangements bear the hallmark of a misguided or rigged policy process; the finance ground rules appear designed to produce failure, not success, on the part of charter schools across America.

Nice as it would be to develop a simple, national answer to the question, "Are charter schools fairly funded?", the analysts who undertook this challenging study recognized that it had to be done state by state. And with charter schools heavily concentrated in urban America, their financing also needed to be compared with that of the city systems in whose midst they operated. That argued for a state-and-city analysis of charter-school funding versus district-operated public schools.

This challenge consumed a top-notch research team for a long year - made longer by the woeful finance data provided by many states.

Relentless effort, however, yielded a clear conclusion: though states and districts vary greatly, the average discrepancy between charter-school and district-school funding in 2002-2003 was $1,801 per pupil, or 21.7 percent. That meant a total charter-funding shortfall (in 16 states and the District of Columbia) of $1 billion, which for an average-size charter school translates to 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 run an after-school or summer program. It could subsidize pupil transportation. It could fix the roof, run a full-day kindergarten program, or hire reading and math specialists. It could expand its extracurricular offerings and 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 annual, 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.

Wise folk know that money alone doesn't create good schools. We've all seen lavishly funded schools that produce dreadful results and meagerly funded schools that do awesomely well. Equalizing revenues alone would not cure all that afflicts sub-par charter schools any more than it would transform low-performing district schools into paragons of instructional effectiveness. But neither should charter schools be expected routinely to make bricks without enough straw. Or be subjected to fundamentally inequitable treatment.

States' self-imposed constitutional duty to provide all their citizens with free public education means they have an ineradicable obligation to provide every child 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. That's the core principle undergirding school finance equalization lawsuits.

It's amazing that charter schools and their students have not yet been plaintiffs in such lawsuits. The evidence set forth in this new report suggests that they would likely stand an excellent chance of prevailing.

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 can and should be provided more efficiently than it usually is. In most places, that's true. But it's quite another thing to expect charter schools to perform education miracles on a pittance - even as the per-pupil funding that remains in their surrounding school systems rises with every youngster who opts to enroll in a charter school. Particularly when one considers how far behind the education eight-ball are many of the children entering U.S. charter schools, how much needs to be done to catch them up, and how hard many charters struggle to provide more (longer days and years, for example), it's worse than na??ve to suggest that these schools will deliver the necessary results without the requisite resources.

The principal bases for short-funding of charter schools - above all, denial of access to local resources and facilities dollars - could be rectified in every jurisdiction by amending the state charter law. Either charter schools can be given full access to those funds or compensatory payments can be made to them by states, sufficient to stitch together the bleeding lacerations in their present budgets. A stroke of the policymaker's pen is all that's needed.

Nowhere is addressing the funding gap more urgent than in America's cities, where the country is bent upon narrowing the achievement gap. That's also where charter schools are most often located and where disadvantaged and minority families have the greatest need for decent education options for their daughters and sons. Yet it is America's cities where charter schools face the biggest discrepancies, the widest gaps, and the greatest injustices. If those schools are to do their part to deliver on the promise that these children will not be left behind, policymakers need to assure them enough straw to make sturdy bricks.

"Backer of Charter Schools Finds They Trail in Financing," by Sam Dillon, New York Times, August 23, 2005 (subscription required)

"Report Fans Flames in D.C. School Funding Debate," by V. Dion Haynes and Lori Montgomery, Washington Post, August 24, 2005

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