Under state law, charter schools and district public schools are supposed to be funded equally. That’s not happening, according to a report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which found that charter schools receive on average $395 per student or 7 percent less than district schools. And for the half of charter elementary schools that don’t qualify for class-size reduction subsidies, the gap increases on average an additional $721 per student.
The LAO recommends equalizing funding over time for the state’s 440,000 charter students, given the state’s budget crisis. One way, which Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing, is the adoption of a weighted student funding formula, favoring English learners and low-income students, for all districts and charter schools. Short of that, the LAO recommends increasing the categorical block grant for charter schools – the primary source of the disparity – and then giving equal flexibility over spending decisions to charters and district schools.
Charters and district schools get about the same basic program funding, which on average is $5,077 for elementary schools and $6,148 for charter high schools.
LAO researcher Jeimee Estrada found that the difference in funding is with categorical programs, which have restricted funding. Charter schools received a block grant of $409 per pupil in 2010–11, $150 less than funding that districts get for the same programs. (If the Legislature agrees with Brown’s plan to eliminate home-to-school transportation, that difference would fall to $50 per student.) Districts received $245 per student more than charters for other categorical programs. Charters also aren’t entitled to the $46 per student that districts receive as reimbursement for state mandates.
The class-size reduction subsidy is available for K-3 schools, but it was frozen in 2008, so all charters that have opened since then aren’t eligible. Only 49 percent of charter K-3 schools get money for the program, compared with 95 percent of district elementary schools.
The LAO study doesn’t take into account facilities costs, another expense for many charter schools. Although districts are obligated, under Proposition 39, to provide comparable building space free of charge, the process has been contentious and unsatisfactory in many districts. ** Some charters rent space in the community or building facilities at their own expense.
Some charters, like Pacific Collegiate in Santa Cruz, and charter organizations like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) do substantial private fundraising to support their schools, while others don’t or can’t. Aspire Public Schools and Rocketship Education operate their schools on state tuition only but use philanthropic dollars to help support their central offices.
In his 2012-13 budget, Brown proposes several measures to help charters financially. He wants to speed up the process by which charters can seek exemptions from delays in state payments, which hit charters especially hard. And he wants to qualify charters for short-term borrowing instruments, called TRANs, to lower the interest payments that charters are paying. Brown would increase the charter categorical block grant by $50 million to account for the growth in charter schools; the per-student amount – $409 – would remain the same.
** Charters won a victory in the battle over Prop 39 last week, when the State Supreme Court let stand an Appeals Court ruling that admonished the Los Altos School District in its long-running battle with Bullis Charter School over what constitutes “reasonably equivalent” facilities. The district short-changed Bullis in offering facilities based on faulty space calculations and comparisons with other district schools. The decision spells out what districts must do to make fair offers in the future and will be binding on lawsuits in lower courts in California.