Tulsa charter students face huge funding gap

December 11, 2020

Ray Carter

A new national report finds an enormous gap exists in the per-pupil funding provided to public charter schools in Tulsa compared to the traditional Tulsa Public Schools district.

“Charter School Funding: Inequity Surges in the Cities,” a report by the Choice Demonstration Project at the Department of Education Reform at University of Arkansas, gave Tulsa an “F” for its “overall funding disparity grade.” While the report found that per-student revenue in the traditional Tulsa Public Schools district was $12,949 per student in the 2017-18 school year—the most recent for which researchers found that “reliable data” was available—Tulsa’s public charter schools received just $7,686 per child, a difference of $5,263, or 41 percent.

“The inequalities in the funding of students in public charter schools compared to traditional public schools are mostly unjustified based on the levels of disadvantage in their respective student populations,” the report stated. “These funding inequalities are funding inequities.”

The report prompted calls for funding reform from charter-school officials.

“As we continue to advocate for equitable funding for public charter school students, we believe this report raises important awareness of the inequities that exist,” said Dr. Ellen Dollarhide McCoy, Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences executive director. “Our goal is to provide all Oklahoma students with the best educational opportunities. Closing this increasingly wide funding gap is a key first step.”

The report reviewed 18 urban areas across the nation, including Tulsa. Overall, the report found that public charter schools received an average of $7,796 less per-pupil than traditional public schools, “the largest funding disparity ever discovered by our research team.”

“Our research indicates that urban charters tended to receive substantially less revenue on a per-pupil basis to serve their students than did traditional public schools in 2017-18,” the report’s authors stated. “We find that charter school funding inequities are surging across major U.S. cities.”

Tulsa was one of eight cities studied where the funding gap has increased since 2013, while the gap shrunk in six cities.

Most of the funding disparity between Tulsa’s public charter schools and Tulsa Public Schools was due to the lack of local property tax funding for charter schools. While the report found that the traditional district received $7,006 per student from local tax sources, charters received nothing.

Tulsa charter schools also received 17 percent less in per-pupil funding from federal sources than did Tulsa Public Schools.

Those gaps were only partially offset by higher state per-pupil appropriations for charter schools, with charters receiving $5,177 per student in state funding compared to $3,757 for Tulsa Public Schools.

While the state funding formula provides greater amounts of state funding to schools that have lower levels of local property tax funding, the formula does not always provide the “equalization” touted by some officials.

Charter schools have had to rely on charitable contributions, but that has not eliminated the funding gap. The report found that Tulsa charters received $1,495 per student in charitable contributions compared to $672 per child donated to Tulsa Public Schools.

Despite receiving $5,263 less per student, one Tulsa charter has far outperformed its better-funded counterparts in the Tulsa Public Schools system.

Tulsa Honor Academy Charter School received an overall grade of A on the 2018-19 Oklahoma School Report Card, the most recent available, making it one of the few highlights from the Tulsa area even though most students at the charter school are from low-income and/or minority families.

In contrast, 28 schools in the Tulsa Public School district received an overall F grade that year.

During a 2019 legislative study, one Tulsa Honor Academy leader urged lawmakers to address the funding disparities that charter schools face.

“There are very few facilities, and we don’t have any money,” Tulsa Honor Academy founder Elsie Urueta Pollock told lawmakers.

At that time, state tests showed 56 percent of seventh-grade students at Tulsa Honor Academy performed at grade level or better on state math tests, compared to just 17 percent in the Tulsa district. The gap between Tulsa Honor Academy and surrounding neighborhood schools was even larger—56 percent at THA versus 8-percent proficient in surrounding neighborhood schools.

The authors of the charter-school report urged policymakers to equalize funding and address the lack of property tax support for public charter schools.

“Charters in most cities receive little or no local education dollars even though they overwhelmingly educate students in the local community,” the report stated. “These realities about charter school funding inequities underscore our main policy recommendation that all public funds should be combined into a single student funding formula, be matched to every K-12 child based on their educational needs and be portable so that it follows children to whichever public school they choose to attend. Charter school funding gaps need not and should not be a permanent part of the funding of public schools.”

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