New Report Challenges Claims Charters Do More With Less

Athlos Leadership Academy in Austin
Patrick Michels
North Austin’s Athlos Leadership Academy under construction in August 2014.

For years, Texas charter schools have complained  they don’t get their fair share of taxpayer money. Claims that charters “do more with less” are part of the conventional wisdom around the schools, which are privately run but depend on public funding. In the last few years, though, charter advocates have called for more money from the state — particularly for facilities — which they say they need to fall in line with traditional schools.

And they’ll likely repeat those claims during Monday’s Senate Education Committee hearing on charter funding.

But a new report from one of the state’s leading school finance experts shows that many charters — particularly the state’s largest charter networks — get more state funding, not less, than traditional schools. The report, from education consulting firm Moak, Casey and Associates, says Texas generally sends more money to large charter schools — those with more than 1,000 students — than to similarly sized traditional public schools. If school districts “were funded like charters,” the report says, public schools would cost the state more than $4.7 billion a year extra.

Charter schools have experienced explosive growth over the last decade.There are more than 600 in Texas today, including some of the nation’s best-known charter networks: KIPP, Uplift, IDEA, Harmony, and Yes Prep. Charter proponents often argue that the schools are models of efficiency, achieving better academic results — higher test scores and graduation rates — than traditional public schools while costing the state less money.

But the Moak report concludes that state funding for large charters is inflated because of what Texas calls the “adjusted allotment.” School districts receive state funding based on a $5,140 per student allotment each school year. That allotment is then adjusted based on certain characteristics, including district size and differences in teacher salaries across the state. Smaller districts have a higher per-student allotment than larger districts.

Charter schools get a per-student allotment based on the average of what traditional public schools receive. The higher allotment for small traditional schools inflates the average, and as a result, large charter schools get more per student than traditional schools of the same size.

School finance expert and former University of Houston economist Larry Toenjes told the Observer he thinks the report’s findings are solid. “Charters argue that they receive $1,000 less per student than public schools. You hear it all the time,” Toenjes said. “But when it comes to Texas’ largest charter schools, they’re wrong.”

But Texas Charter School Association Executive Director David Dunn told the Observer that while a few large charter schools may benefit from Texas’ complicated funding formula, on the whole, charters are still underfunded relative to traditional public schools, most of all because they don’t get dedicated funding for a school building.

According to the report, though, large charter school networks get state funding that more than makes up the deficit.

Texas’ complex school funding formulas are arcane — one expert told the Observer that no more than a dozen people fully understand them — and have engendered heated debate for years.

During the last four decades, more than a half dozen lawsuits have been brought against Texas over the way the state funds schools. The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments in the latest school finance challenge last September, and experts expect a ruling early next year.

Unlike past cases, the latest lawsuit includes the Texas Charter Schools Association. In a court brief filed in April, the association contends that it was “undisputed that charter schools receive at least $1,000 less per student than other public schools.”

But the report, and Toenjes, dispute the claim.

“People making that claim are either are totally ignorant of how the funding system works or they’re duplicitous,” Toenjes said.

John Savage is a writer based in Austin.

Published at 10:20 am CST
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