by David Safier
On Friday, Ann-Eve Pedersen and I recorded a story about the latest charter school funding controversy for our cable TV show, Education: The Rest of the Story. It hasn't aired yet, but in the meanwhile, Tim Steller has done a first rate job of covering similar material. He's got most of the information — and got it right — in his Sunday column, More money for charter schools should mean higher expectations.
Steller isn't a charter school basher. He has kids in a charter, a choice I respect. When parents find schools they believe are best suited for their children, that's where they should send their children. But Steller is clear-eyed about the funding issue, offering a lucid discussion of most of the important issues.
I've tried my damndest to understand the issue of equitable funding of charters and school district schools, and I've never come up with a go-to-the-bank answer. For me, the best question to ask if you want to make an apples-to-apples comparison is, how much money goes to educate the child without special needs sitting in a classroom? If the figures are similar for charters and district schools, then the system is reasonably equitable.
Interestingly, the best answer I've received is from Chris Ackerley, a physics teacher at Amphi High and a Republican who ran for state legislature. Chris and I disagree on lots of issues, but he's a smart guy who's better with numbers than I am, and he took an objective look at school funding. His takeaway was, when looking at the money that goes for students' educations — the money that goes to that median student sitting in a classroom — some schools get a bit more, some a bit less, but it doesn't break down into a charter/district school dichotomy. On the whole, they receive similar funding.
Steller breaks things down nicely in his column. Most charter schools don't furnish transportation or free/reduced lunches (many don't have cafeterias that prepare lunches). They tend to have fewer special education students and ELL students than district schools, and both types of students receive extra state funding to provide the extra educational services they require. Put it all together, and you have differences in absolute funding levels between charters and district schools, but that doesn't mean charters receive a lower level of funding for their students' educations.
I would add one thing to Steller's analysis. If charters don't offer transportation, that means children, especially young children, whose parents can't drive them to school can't attend if the school is more than a few blocks away. If charters don't provide free and reduced lunch, special education programs or ELL classes, children needing those services most likely won't attend the charters, cutting out many of the students who demand the most time and effort. A lot has been written about charters increasing the segregation of students along economic and racial lines. These restrictions on certain students going to charters explain a portion of why that happens, though there are other factors that come into play.
Steller also delves into the unregulated Education Management Organizations (EMOs), also known as Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), that often suck up lots of the charters' money. Many of the EMOs and CMOs are for profit, which means that, unlike nonprofits, their finances are hidden from the public. When you combine that with the scandalous no-bid contracting Steller discusses which allows charters to funnel their buying toward friends and relatives, you have a situation ripe for profiteering at taxpayer expense.