Charter school funding lags traditional public schools

Ray Carter | September 25, 2023

If public charter school funding was tied to student results, those schools would be receiving more per pupil than most of their traditional public-school counterparts. A recent study ranking the nation’s top public schools showed that 20% of the top 100 were public charter schools.

But instead of being among the best-funded public schools, charter schools often receive thousands of dollars less per pupil than traditional public schools, including in Oklahoma.

Advocates say that funding gap is one reason why fewer charter schools have opened in Oklahoma than would occur with equitable funding and say the state should focus on providing similar per-pupil funding to all public schools.

“Doing more with less is a necessity and admirable, but it’s not ethical and one can only imagine the results public charter schools might achieve if their students were equitably funded,” said Barry Schmelzenbach, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Charter Schools Association.

When U.S. News & World Report released its 2023-2024 rankings of the best public high schools in the country, there were 21 charter schools in the top 100.

“Charter schools consistently punch above their weight. Although we are only a sliver of the nation’s public high schools, public charter schools have an outsized share of the highest performers,” said Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

While charter schools are public schools, they are freed from some regulations imposed on traditional public schools and often outperform them. More significantly, students must proactively choose to attend a charter school, meaning charter schools face closure if they do not appeal to families.

U.S. News & World Report ranked 17,680 schools based on criteria including college readiness, state assessment proficiency and performance, underserved student performance, college curriculum breadth, and graduation rate.

Nationally, charter schools serve only 6.5% of the nation’s high school students, but they account for more than 20% of the nation’s top 100 high schools.

U.S. News & World Report found that charter schools are among the top performers in Oklahoma as well.

The third-highest rated public school in Oklahoma, Santa Fe South Pathways Middle College, is a charter school, as is the fourth-highest rated school, Dove Science Academy High School.

The only public schools ranked higher than Santa Fe South Pathways Middle College and Dove Science Academy were magnet schools that do not accept all students and instead require applicant students to achieve a certain high level of academic performance to be admitted.

In contrast, public charter schools typically take all students, unless the school runs out of seats, in which case a random lottery is used for admission.

The high ranking given charter schools by U.S. News & World Report aligns with the findings of other studies.

Since 2010, many research studies have found that students in charter schools do better than their traditional-school peers. One study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that charter schools do a better job teaching students from low-income families, students of color, and students who are still learning English than traditional schools. Separate studies by the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Mathematica Policy Research found that charter school students are more likely to graduate from high school, go on to college, stay in college and have higher earnings in early adulthood.

But the student success of Oklahoma charter schools has been achieved while being paid less—and often far less—than traditional public schools.

Charter School Funding: Little Progress Towards Equity in the City,” by the School Choice Demonstration Project in the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform, compared public charter-school funding with traditional public-school funding in 18 cities nationwide, including Tulsa.

The report found a substantial funding gap exists in Tulsa.

In the 2019-2020 school year, the most recent for which data was available nationwide, researchers found that Tulsa Public Schools, one of the state’s worst-performing districts, received at least $12,582 per student, an amount that exceeds the tuition charged at many private schools in Oklahoma.

In comparison, the per-pupil funding for charter schools in Tulsa was $9,770 per student, which is $2,811 (or 22.3%) less per student.

The gap would have been even larger had it not been for “nonpublic” funds received by charter schools, a category of funding that includes philanthropic donations. Tulsa charter schools’ per-student total of $9,770 per child includes $572 from nonpublic sources.

The main reason for the disparity is that charter schools do not receive any local property tax funding, which is typically used to pay for buildings and infrastructure.

Nathan Phelps, president of Classically Formed Inc., said that funding disparity results in far fewer charter schools being opened in Oklahoma than in other states.

Although Phelps and his associates were successful in launching a new charter school this year, Tulsa Classical Academy, they had to raise substantial sums from donors to cover the costs of a new school building. Many other charters have had to settle for buildings that have been abandoned.

“Unlike public district schools, charters do not receive any local funding—no property tax, no county millage, no car tag revenue, etc.,” Phelps said.

When officials were in the planning stages for Tulsa Classical Academy, Phelps said projections indicated that state funding for public-school students at Tulsa Classical could be just $5,000 per student. The actual figure this year—$5,950 per student—is better than that, but still far below the total per-pupil funding received by many traditional public schools.

In a 2022 presentation, Phelps noted that Oklahoma had just one charter school for every 164,973 residents. In comparison, Colorado had one charter school for every 21,787 people in the state. In Utah, the ratio was one charter school for every 24,056 people. In Idaho, there was one charter school for every 27,045 residents.

The far higher rate of charter-school options in those other states is tied to the fact that funding for public charter schools and traditional public schools is more equitable in those states, he said.

But in Oklahoma, Phelps said, “It is a very, very difficult road.”

In recent years, lawmakers have begun to address the funding disparity.

In 2021, lawmakers enacted the Redbud School Funding Act, which dedicates a share of marijuana tax collections to the State Public Common School Building Equalization Fund. Money in the fund is used to provide grants to school districts with little local property tax revenue, a group that includes all charter schools and some traditional public schools.

This year, lawmakers provided $125 million to the Redbud School Grants Program.

Charter-school officials welcome that change, but say the Redbud program has not eliminated the funding gap.

“Fully funding public education in Oklahoma must include the students attending public charter schools,” Schmelzenbach said. “Parents shouldn’t be forced to sacrifice educational resources simply for opting out of a neighborhood school that isn’t meeting their child’s needs.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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