Revisiting the Complexities of Charter Funding Comparisons

Posted on April 17, 2013



This Education Week Post today rather uncritically summarized a recently published article based on an earlier report on charter school spending “gaps.” I’ve not had a chance to dig into this updated study yet, but the Ed Week post also referred to an earlier study from Ball State University which I have critiqued on multiple occasions. Importantly, my previous critiques of this study point to the complexities of making these comparisons appropriately.  Here is one version of my critique of the Ball State study, which appears in Footnote 22, page 49 of this study: http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/rb-charterspending_0.pdf

A study frequently cited by charter advocates, authored by researchers from Ball State University and Public Impact, compared the charter versus traditional public school funding deficits across states, rating states by the extent that they under-subsidize charter schools. The authors identify no state or city where charter schools are fully, equitably funded.

But simple direct comparisons between subsidies for charter schools and public districts can be misleading because public districts may still retain some responsibility for expenditures associated with charters that fall within their district boundaries or that serve students from their district. For example, under many state charter laws, host districts or sending districts retain responsibility for providing transportation services, subsidizing food services, or providing funding for special education services. Revenues provided to host districts to provide these services may show up on host district financial reports, and if the service is financed directly by the host district, the expenditure will also be incurred by the host, not the charter, even though the services are received by charter students.

Drawing simple direct comparisons thus can result in a compounded error: Host districts are credited with an expense on children attending charter schools, but children attending charter schools are not credited to the district enrollment. In a per-pupil spending calculation for the host districts, this may lead to inflating the numerator (district expenditures) while deflating the denominator (pupils served), thus significantly inflating the district’s per pupil spending. Concurrently, the charter expenditure is deflated.
Correct budgeting would reverse those two entries, essentially subtracting the expense from the budget calculated for the district, while adding the in-kind funding to the charter school calculation. Further, in districts like New York City, the city Department of Education incurs the expense for providing facilities to several charters. That is, the City’s budget, not the charter budgets, incur another expense that serves only charter students. The Ball State/Public Impact study errs egregiously on all fronts, assuming in each and every case that the revenue reported by charter schools versus traditional public schools provides the same range of services and provides those services exclusively for the students in that sector (district or charter).

Charter advocates often argue that charters are most disadvantaged in financial comparisons because charters must often incur from their annual operating expenses, the expenses associated with leasing facilities space. Indeed it is true that charters are not afforded the ability to levy taxes to carry public debt to finance construction of facilities. But it is incorrect to assume when comparing expenditures that for traditional public schools, facilities are already paid for and have no associated costs, while charter schools must bear the burden of leasing at market rates – essentially and “all versus nothing” comparison. First, public districts do have ongoing maintenance and operations costs of facilities as well as payments on debt incurred for capital investment, including new construction and renovation. Second, charter schools finance their facilities by a variety of mechanisms, with many in New York City operating in space provided by the city, many charters nationwide operating in space fully financed with private philanthropy, and many holding lease agreements for privately or publicly owned facilities.

New York City is not alone it its choice to provide full facilities support for some charter school operators (http://www.thenotebook.org/blog/124517/district-cant-say-how-many-millions-its-spending-renaissance-charters). Thus, the common characterization that charter schools front 100% of facilities costs from operating budgets, with no public subsidy, and traditional public school facilities are “free” of any costs, is wrong in nearly every case, and in some cases there exists no facilities cost disadvantage whatsoever for charter operators.

Baker and Ferris (2011) point out that while the Ball State/Public Impact Study claims that charter schools in New York State are severely underfunded, the New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO), in more refined analysis focusing only on New York City charters (the majority of charters in the State), points out that charter schools housed within Board of Education facilities are comparably subsidized when compared with traditional public schools (2008-09). In revised analyses, the IBO found that co-located charters (in 2009-10) actually received more than city public schools, while charters housed in private space continued to receive less (after discounting occupancy costs). That is, the funding picture around facilities is more nuanced that is often suggested.

Batdorff, M., Maloney, L., May, J., Doyle, D., & Hassel, B. (2010). Charter School Funding: Inequity Persists. Muncie, IN: Ball State University.

NYC Independent Budget Office (2010, February). Comparing the Level of Public Support: Charter Schools versus Traditional Public Schools. New York: Author, 1.

NYC Independent Budget Office (2011). Charter Schools Housed in the City’s School Buildings get More Public Funding per Student than Traditional Public Schools. New York: Author. Retrieved April 24, 2012, from http://ibo.nyc.ny.us/cgi-park/?p=272.

NYC Independent Budget Office (2011). Comparison of Funding Traditional Schools vs. Charter Schools: Supplement. New York: Author .Retrieved April 24, 2012, from http://www.ibo.nyc.ny.us/iboreports/chartersupplement.pdf.

Note: The average “capital outlay” expenditure of public school districts in 2008-09 was over $2,000 per pupil in New York State, nearly $2,000 per pupil in Texas and about $1,400 per pupil in Ohio. Based on enrollment weighted averages generated from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Fiscal Survey of Local Governments, Elementary and Secondary School Finances 2008-09 (variable tcapout): http://www2.census.gov/govs/school/elsec09t.xls

Posted in: Charter Schools