Friday, June 03, 2005

Study: Charter Schools Not Cheaper

They received more funds than traditional public schools in '03

08:01 AM CDT on Friday, June 3, 2005

By KENT FISCHER / The Dallas Morning News

Charter school advocates for years have said their schools survive on less money per student than regular public schools. Charter leaders have proclaimed the funding gap for so long that it is accepted as fact among educators.

But it's not true, according to a new report commissioned by the Texas Education Agency.

Charter schools receive more money – not less – than traditional public schools on a per-student basis, according to the Texas Center for Educational Research, a nonprofit group that recently released its seventh evaluation of Texas charter schools.

According to the report, the average charter school received $8,045 for each child it enrolled in 2003. Regular public schools received $8,028. The figures include state and federal aid, grants, donations and local taxes.

Charter report: Read the 2003-04 evaluation of open-enrollment schools

The figures strike to the heart of the charter movement, which has presented itself to lawmakers as a cost-effective alternative to traditional public schools. Some charter advocates immediately questioned the legitimacy of the study.

"I disagree with that," said Patsy O'Neill of the Texas Charter School Resource Center. "We have data that shows significant differences – up to 30 percent – in the amount of funding" between charters and traditional schools.

A state education official, however, said the study is correct.

"This is something that we've noticed for the last several years, that charter school revenue per student has been increasing significantly," said Joe Wisnoski, a deputy associate commissioner of education.

In 2001-02, public schools were receiving $7,851 per student compared with $6,762 for charters, according to the research center, which is based in Austin.

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools, but they're operated independently of local school districts. Organizations of teachers, parents and entrepreneurs operate the schools through contracts with the state Board of Education. There are about 200 groups running about 275 charter campuses around the state, most of them in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. They enroll more than 60,000 students.

Texas charters, first created in 1996, narrowly escaped a tough legislative session. Attached to the failed rewrite of the state's school finance system was a proposal that would have closed down perhaps dozens of charters that have struggled to post acceptable student test scores.

The bill also would have opened up new sources of revenue to charters whose test scores were satisfactory. During Senate testimony on the bill, several charter advocates cited the "funding gap" between charters and traditional schools as a problem lawmakers need to address.

Mr. Wisnoski said that in the charter movement's early days, the funding gap probably did exist. But under the Bush administration, large increases in federal money for charter schools have helped eliminate the gap. So too have growing charter enrollments of low-income and Spanish-speaking students, which bring with them more state funding than regular students do.

According to the study, charters receive 56 percent more federal aid than regular schools and twice as much money from the state. Charters, however, receive nothing from district collections of local property taxes.

The figures cited in the report are averages, and so there are lots of examples of Texas charters getting significantly less – or more – than the $8,045 cited.

Mike Feinberg, a co-founder of the well-regarded KIPP Academies, said the study was wrong to omit construction money from the analysis of traditional school revenue. Public school districts routinely pay for construction by selling bonds and by receiving state construction aid. Charter schools, generally, pay for their buildings out of their general operating budgets.

The study is "not an apples-to-apples comparison," said Mr. Feinberg, who has been one of the leading advocates for additional funding for Texas charters. "Charter schools do not have access to capital outlay [building] money, and for the public schools that's a huge chunk" of revenue.

Ms. O'Neill added that the year cited in the study included a one-time federal grant for facilities at some charter schools. Some of those schools received up to $1 million, possibly skewing the findings, she said.

Teresa Elliott, executive director of the NYOS Charter School in Austin, said money raised by PTOs and PTAs for traditional public schools is not included in the study. However, money raised through similar groups for charters is reported.

"This is a major discrepancy ...," Ms. Elliot wrote in an e-mail. "The local PTAs in Austin are ... being asked to fund programs such as art and Spanish. That revenue won't ever be in [the study] – but it impacts [the school's] operations significantly."

Dr. Kelly Shapley, the study's author, said that the analysis isn't perfect but that it's as good as can be done with what's available.

"All this information came directly from PEIMS," the state education database, Dr. Shapley said. "That's the best source of data there is" on Texas public schools.

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