OP-ED | Charter School Finance 101
School finance decision making requires honest data. With the governor’s education reform proposal (Senate Bill 24) and related $14.1 million and 28 percent per pupil budget increases for charter schools soon coming up for vote before the legislature, the charter school wars have heated up once again. Even a few professional education associations and city mayors have been persuaded by big-money interests to embrace wholeheartedly the charter movement’s goals of unfettered expansion and an increased share of local property tax dollars along with greater state aid.
I’m not about to be pinned into a pro-charter/anti-charter corner, nor is the school finance coalition with which I consult part-time or, for that matter, most any educator I know. It’s not that simple, as we all care deeply about ensuring quality schooling for every Connecticut child, and we are all profoundly concerned about the persistently poor performance of large and small urban school districts that serve the majority of this state’s poor, minority, and immigrant children. We strongly believe that school finance is at the heart of any successful or failing school; it is the ship’s keel and rudder, and without abundant objective data both will cause the ship to sink. Like adequate resources, good data are necessary, though certainly not sufficient, for achieving excellence.
What I therefore find perplexing, if not altogether maddening, is the disregard for sound data by our policymakers to support the additional investment in charter schools rather than in improving the traditional school districts that enroll 92 percent of the state’s PK-12 public school students, investing those resources in quality PK programs that carry proven long-term academic and social benefits, or helping districts and their municipalities meet the extraordinary costs of special education mandates. And what news junkie can ignore the fact that deep pockets increasingly seem to be influencing education policy here in Connecticut and across the nation?
Into the foray wades Professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University, a real star among school finance experts nationally. A former private school teacher and charter school aficionado turned researcher extraordinaire and prolific writer, Baker excels at weighing in on timely and controversial school finance matters. His “SchoolFinance101” blog thus enjoys a very wide, albeit largely technical following, limited primarily by readers’ patience with his heavy reliance on scatterplots and other complicated graphic displays that are often difficult to read online. Nevertheless, his work is rich in ideas and preliminary conclusions that can and should be tested by school finance researchers everywhere using their own data. (By way of full disclosure, he is also an expert witness in the CCJEF v. Rell school finance lawsuit.)
For those lacking time to read his latest blog entry, “Snapshots of Connecticut Charter School Data,” summarized below are its contents. Keep in mind that it’s a blog, not a research tome or advocacy website. Rather than posit any particular political view, his blog provides quick analyses intended to stimulate more thorough research by his readers and tough questions by state and local education policymakers.
SchoolFinance101 Blog’s Snapshots of State’s Charter Schools
Baker begins his March 24 blog with a school-by-school demographic analysis for Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven. The series of scatterplots show that charter schools in these cities serve substantively different student populations than the host districts in which they are located and from which they draw most of their students. For Hartford, the graphs show students from the two charters operating there to have poverty rates (based on free lunch eligibility, not the less-poor reduced-price level) about 40 percent lower than the regular public schools and to enroll nearly no ELL students. That same pattern is echoed in the graph for Bridgeport and appears only slightly better in the one for New Haven. Looking at the Achievement First record for serving special education students in those three cities, Baker finds that AF does not serve handicapped student populations comparable to district populations.
From a policy perspective, Baker concludes that charter schools cannot serve as a model for expansion that could be expected to yield similar outcomes for all children in these three cities, inasmuch as there are simply too few non-poor, non-ELL, non-SPED students within those urban locales to enable these schools to duplicate whatever current levels of success they may be exhibiting.
Comparing charter school and traditional public school district finances dollar-for-dollar, Baker notes, is an unfair and inappropriate metric, given the dissimilar student populations they serve. Moreover, he points out that there are additional complexities involved in any such comparisons, inasmuch as host districts are required to retain responsibility for the transportation and special education costs of students attending charters, which extra costs are reflected in inflated per pupil expenditures within those host districts. To demonstrate the importance of making cost adjustments that take such hidden costs into consideration, Baker excludes those charter expenditures from the 2008-09 operating budgets of Connecticut’s traditional school districts, plotting those pared-down per pupil expenditures against spending by the 17 charter schools. His conclusion: after adjusting school district expenditures to account for the mandated costs of transportation and SPED that augment charter school budgets, “charters appear relatively well resourced.”
Baker’s graphs that adjust for these mandated district contributions in 2008-09 show that Amistad Academy overspent New Haven Public Schools by $2,592 per pupil, Achievement First Hartford Academy overspent the public schools in that city by $2,633 per pupil, and Bridgeport Achievement First overspent its local public schools by $2,396 per pupil. He also points to findings from an earlier blog posting wherein he showed that for Amistad, the funding difference translates to both class size and salary advantages.
Even while allowing that charters may incur as much as an extra $1,000 per pupil in the cost of facilities leasing or debt service over and above that of traditional public schools, Baker’s figures show that the charters within the three big cities nevertheless come out on top. Toward the end of his blog, he discusses in more detail cost issues pertaining to charter school facilities, pointing to flaws in a Ball State University/Public Impact study that fails to adjust for the required fiscal responsibilities of host school districts (like transportation and SPED). He also throws in a couple of figures comparing plant maintenance and operations expenditures for districts and charters (charter costs are lower), as well as administrative spending comparisons per pupil (charter costs are higher)
The final prong of Baker’s exploration of pro-charter arguments dissects the oft-repeated rhetoric of those schools being able to “beat the odds with the same kids and less money.” Having already refuted the myths of charter schools serving the same student populations as traditional school districts and with less money, here he raises questions about whether charters are actually beating the odds. Three scatterplots show 5th grade mean scale scores for math on the 2010-11 Connecticut Mastery Test by the percentage of students receiving free meals (a higher poverty standard than reduced-price meals) of all Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven schools serving that grade. Results demonstrate how “comparably ridiculous” the comparisons are between the atypical students enrolled in the Hartford and Bridgeport charters and their significantly more impoverished peers enrolled in host district schools. Results for the two Achievement First charters in New Haven were more in line with those of public schools serving a similar percentage of students eligible for free/reduced price meals (the lesser poverty standard).
Baker concludes that brief student outcomes discussion with a scatterplot displaying the 7th grade CMT math scale scores by the free/reduced price meal poverty standard for schools statewide, labeling the data points for charter schools. Six of the charters fall below that trend line, and only four are more than a few points above it. As Baker notes, none of these CMT mean scale score comparisons account for the influence of SPED and ELL students’ test scores on urban school district mean scores.
Data on Charter Spending by New Haven and Stamford
Do I wish that Baker had gone farther with his Connecticut charter school analysis? You bet! But is it better than any charter data we’ve seen from the State Department of Education? Absolutely! Unfortunately, it’s not the thorough technical cost/benefits evaluation of the state’s investment in charter schools vs. traditional public schools, magnet schools, Open Choice, voc ags, or the technical high schools that policymakers ought to have before them.
To add to the Baker charter school analysis and the debate surrounding SB 24’s proposed $1,000 per charter student charge-back to the sending district’s ECS funds, I thought readers would be interested in seeing just how much money two of our big cities already invest in the independently operated charters located there. As an outraged taxpayer from one of these cities pointed out to me, if the state now wants to charge these cities another $1,000 per student, then her city should immediately cease all other financial support for the charters. Many others have weighed in to say that with the hefty charter school increases proposed by the Governor, each charter — just like any other school district — should have to pay for all its SPED services and transportation costs. Finally, it goes without saying that the State Board of Education ought to enforce charter school admission and retention practices that result in racially integrated enrollments as well as ELL and SPED student numbers that reflect their prevalence within the host district.
New Haven Public Schools are spending $101,907 on the 1,674 students attending charter schools located in that city plus an undetermined share of the district’s $9.1 million transportation costs. The city’s loss of ECS dollars for those students would have amounted to more than $16.2 million had the formula not been frozen due to the recession. If SB24 is passed with the $1,000 per charter student deduction from the ECS intact, the cost to New Haven in FY13, assuming the same number of students will opt to attend charters, would total $1,674,000, or more than 16 times greater than the generous sums the district is currently expending on charters, as shown below. SB 24’s increased ECS foundation of $12,000 per student also means that the city will forgo as much as another $20 million in education aid for its taxpayers’ schoolchildren who enroll in charters and can therefore cannot be counted as resident students for ECS purposes. Although the city would receive an extra $3.6 million in ECS if the bill is passed, those additional dollars are “conditional” and depend on the district’s ability to satisfy the Education Commissioner’s reform conditions. After the state slices off the charter “tuition,” that leaves New Haven Public Schools a net ECS increase of only $1.9 million (or about $97 per pupil) for meeting those new conditions and helping with other vital spending needs in a district of some 19,875 students.
The predicament of Stamford is even more twisted. At present 260 Stamford students attend two charter schools located in that city, Stamford Academy and Trailblazers Academy, and another 3 students travel to Norwalk to attend Side by Side Charter School. As shown below, the city currently contributes more than $1.4 million toward providing for its charter students ($5,444 per pupil) over and above what those schools receive directly from the state and the funds they raise privately. If SB 24 is passed, the city’s ECS allocation would increase by $1.2 million — less than it currently spends on its charters — and there would be no ECS funding for local students enrolled in those schools. After the $1,000 per charter student deduction, the net ECS increase for the district would be just $61 per pupil, assuming it (like New Haven) can meet the Commissioner’s reform conditions.
Does anyone really believe such fiscal policies make rational sense for supporting school districts, their municipalities, or the ambitious reforms that need to be undertaken within every school and school district across the state? Rather than supporting the governor’s agenda, many such fiscal provisions of SB 24 may serve the opposite effect. Pending comprehensive, systemic school finance reform that results in adequate and equitable state funding for all schoolchildren and their school districts and schools — including charters, magnets, and other important schools of choice — the state should continue to fund charter schools outside the ECS equalization aid formula. Similarly, all “conditional” funding, whether targeted at desired reforms, reimbursing extraordinary SPED costs, or supporting transportation, should be relegated to categorical grants outside the ECS.
Dianne Kaplan deVries is an education consultant who also serves as Project Director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, plaintiffs in the CCJEF v. Rell education adequacy and equity lawsuit. Opinions expressed here, however, are solely hers and not necessarily those of CCJEF.