Digging for Consistent, Comprehensive Financial Data on New Jersey Charter Schools

Posted on October 28, 2011



I’ve commented in the past about the difficulties of obtaining reconcilable data on finances of New Jersey Charter Schools. What do I mean by reconcilable? Well, when I’m looking at financial data on charter schools in particular, I like to be able to see some relationship between expenditure and revenue data reported on IRS 990 filings (Tax returns of the non-profit boards/foundations/agencies that operate the charters) and state government (department of ed) reported expenditures and/or any annual financial report documents that might be required by charter authorizers. This really is an authorizer/accountability issue. A financial reporting requirement issue.

When I did my study on New York City Charter schools last year I was quite pleased to find a) annual financial reports on nearly all NYC charters housed by the State University of New York, b) IRS 990 filings for nearly all NYC charter schools, and c) a pretty strong relationship between the reported expenditures on one form and the reported expenditures on the other. Here are two graphs of those relationships – the first including the higher outliers (which is partly a reporting issue, with KIPP Academy embedding systemwide expenses-an issue consistent on both forms).

Example: NYC Charters

Here’s how it looks if I focus on those spending less than $20,000 per pupil:

Example: NYC Charters

So, in NYC, I have pretty solid information from both sources, well aligned but with some notable exceptions. Some of these exceptions were further reconciled, or at least changed positions, when we added in expenditures from affiliated foundations (Harlem Children’s Zone, HCZ in particular).

In New Jersey, financial data on charter schools seems to be improving, but remains sparse. For example, in my most recent search of IRS 990 filings through Guidestar, I was able to obtain the following distribution of numbers of institutions by most recent available year -

2010 (2009-10 school year) = 40

2009 (2008-09 school year) = 8

2005 = 1

2004=1

2003=3

1998 = 1

Yet, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) reports data on 64 charter schools (63 with expenditure data). So, I can still only easily access up-to-date IRS filings on about 2/3 of NJ charter schools. This to me, is a concern, but it is a massive improvement over the past few years. I now actually have enough data from each source to check the relationship between the two, and where data are reported, that relationship is strong:

But we still have limited information on many NJ charter schools, and only a single source of data on which to rely. Indeed, it is the official state department of education data, but it’s always nice to be able to reconcile with other official data/filings/reports.

Note also that in NY, the points that fall in line, fall right in line – on a straight line – with exactly reconcilable numbers. The NJ ones which are reported are getting better… mostly in line.

Here’s how the spending per pupil rankings play out in NJ using each source. First, the IRS 990 data:

Next the NJDOE spending guide data:

Note that things change a bit when we add in those cases where IRS 990s weren’t reported.

So, there are a lot of schools missing in that first graph, and adding the others in does change things a bit. But I’d like to see both forms of data readily available on an annual basis.

Among other things, these data reveal some striking differences in spending, which perhaps result at least partly from access to non-public funding, but also partly result from differences in host district funding. An important question here is whether these differences are driven systematically by differences in the needs of the student populations served by these particular schools.

That is, are the differences in spending across charters a predictable function of various student needs, such as concentrations of low income children, English language learners or children with disabilities?

Are the differences in spending across charters partially explained by regional differences in labor costs? (e.g. competitive wages for school employees such as teachers?)

That is, to what extent to these substantial differences in spending across charters enhance equity, as opposed to eroding it.  And to what extent should we be concerned about the role of charters within the public system eroding equity (e.g. are traditional resource equity concerns relevant when individuals and families choose less well resourced schools? Do more well resourced schools tend to have longer waiting lists? Makes for a fun legal question, as well as a moral/ethical question).

I’ll explore these issues in a future post. For now, I’ve just been trying to get enough coverage of data on the financing of NJ charter schools in order to be able to conduct such analysis. And it has been very frustrating that such data are not readily available for all schools and easily reconcilable.

 

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