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Op-Ed: Dollars Don’t Make Sense -- Time to Improve Charter School Funding

Inequitable funding for charter schools almost guarantees inequitable treatment for some of New Jersey’s most vulnerable students

gloria bonilla-santiago
Gloria Bonilla-Santiago

The amount of money that a charter school receives per student is currently being debated in no fewer than six different states, including New Jersey, New York, Indiana, Georgia, Ohio, and Massachusetts. At the core of the debate is the issue of funding equity when it comes to serving children.

To understand why this issue is so critical, it is important to explain how free public charter schools receive money. One of the key tenets of charter school law is that public funds for educating children should follow the child into any public school that they choose to attend (including public charters).

However, the reality is that in many states, including New Jersey, only a portion of the per-pupil funding follows the child to a charter school. There are two funding areas that together constitute the primary source of the funding inequity facing charter schools: adjustment aid and facilities funding.

I’ll explain both, using the charter I founded -- LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden -- as an example. It should be noted that charters throughout the country are facing similar issues.

Adjustment Aid

Local districts count all children, whether they attend charters or regular public schools for their funding count. However, in New Jersey, most urban districts keep what is known at “adjusted aid,” thus creating a funding inequity that is unjust and in contradiction with the intent of the charter schools law.

As someone who has dedicated my life to developing a charter school district in one of New Jersey’s poorest and most challenged communities, narrowing of the funding gap can’t come soon enough for the 1,500 students that we serve. While the city’s traditional public schools receive about $27,500 per year per student; LEAP receives 55 percent of that amount.

The lack of equitable per-pupil funding for charter schools is driven largely by the various types of adjustment aid that New Jersey provides to school districts.

The amount of this aid is, at least, nominally driven by the number of students who reside in the district, including charter school students. Still, all the aid stays with the district, even the amount that is attributable to the portion of students attending charter schools.

Although the Charter School Act in New Jersey intended for charter schools to receive 90 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding, charter school students have always actually received on average about 70 percent of the per-pupil funding of their district peers.

The 2008 School Funding Reform Act in New Jersey eliminated Abbott aid to school districts in low-income communities, the original source of the inequity in funding. However, the elimination of Abbott aid led to the start of adjustment aid (and its variations), which simply perpetuated the practice of charter school students receiving considerably less than students in their sending districts.

To understand the impact of adjustment aid, consider three sending districts with the highest potential adjustment-aid payments that would be due to charter schools based on their 2014-2015 projected enrollment numbers -- that is, if charter schools received the adjustment aid attributable to their students. (The projections reflect both a 90 percent and 100 percent adjustment aid amount.)

The estimated payments to charter schools in the Camden City school district (CSSD) at 90 percent would be approximately $17.6 million. Since the charter schools are not receiving this portion of funding, the Camden City school district is gaining an additional $17.6 million for charter school students who are not attending a district-run school.

Again, if we examine the projected enrollment numbers for the 2014-2015 school year, we can see how much adjustment aid each charter school is losing. (Totals do not include the charter schools that were closed last year.)

This missing adjustment aid represents the most significant source of the funding inequity charter schools are facing.

So, from a value standpoint, the difference between LEAP and Camden Public Schools couldn’t be more dramatic. The city’s two public high schools only graduate about half of their students and place a similar amount into colleges. As an independent public school charter district in Camden, LEAP draws from the same low-income student population. But LEAP students perform better -- 10 consecutive classes with a 100 percent graduation and college placement rate.

It is time we receive our fair share of funding.

Facilities Funding

One of the biggest issues for charter school operators in New Jersey is the lack of facilities funding. Since the law does not provide new or existing charter schools with access to local district facilities or facilities funding, charter schools must expend operational dollars to pay for facilities related expenses.

According to the 2013 facilities survey, An Analysis of The Charter School Facility Landscape in New Jersey, the average per-pupil cost for facilities-related expenses is $1,418 -- all of which comes directly from operating funds.

It is evident that charter schools are now an integral element in public education and are here to stay. This is no longer an experiment but a reality of what public education looks like now. Therefore, funding of charter schools must also meet the intention of the laws that created them -- to establish and fund charter schools with public funds that are equal to what is available to a school district serving the same population of students.

The reality is that this is not the case in Camden, where 3,407 students who are enrolled in city charter schools are being deprived of approximately $2,730 per student that should follow them into their schools. This adjustment aid will bring some relief to schools that are struggling to provide their students and families with quality services. This relief does not even include aid for facilities and other state aid that is not factored in the per-pupil adjusted aid that is received by local districts. Camden City receives $46,068,696 in adjusted aid every year and charter schools are getting none of this money.

This needs to change -- and soon.

Equitable funding should be the primer for addressing how charter schools, which are public schools are funded. Anything less is in violation of the rights of those children and parents who opt to attend a public charter school. New Jersey should know better as it has addressed these funding-equity issues for many decades through the courts.

Critics, including school districts and teachers unions have framed this issue as public schools vs. charters, claiming that more charter funding would divert dollars from traditional public schools.

However, the commitment should be to achieving positive and adequate student results -- nothing else. Charter schools have proven to be effective in achieving results for some of the most challenged students.

In New Jersey, for example, charter schools have narrowed the achievement gap between New Jersey’s historically disadvantaged black and Latino population and their statewide white and Asian peers, according to a November 2014 study released by the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. The report noted a 19 percentage point increase in proficiency across five years, larger than those made statewide, or by comparative districts. Nationally, 63 percent of students enrolled in public charter schools are minority students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The most recent independent research study on charter school performance conducted by Stanford University compared minority students in public charter schools to minority students in traditional public schools.

Results found that low-income black students enrolled in charters gain nearly one-and-a-half additional months of learning in reading and more than one-and-a-half additional months of learning in math. Moreover, low-income Hispanic students gain nearly three additional weeks of learning in reading and more than a full month in math.

Bottom line: Charters are giving the poorest children a better chance at college and, ultimately, the ability to break poverty’s chronic cycle. Why aren’t they receiving equal funding?

It is time to fund public charter schools and traditional public schools equitably -- before it is too late and students are the losers.

Gloria Bonilla-Santiago is the founder and board chair of the LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden. She is a board of governors distinguished service professor, graduate department of public policy and administration at Rutgers University.

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