Charter school cap efforts gain momentum

From California to Wisconsin, efforts to stop charter school growth are gaining momentum. In the April 2019 mayoral election in Chicago, both candidates say they want to halt charter school expansion.

Financial issues lie at the core of these efforts.

Schools were hit particularly hard by the 2008 recession. Many states cut education funding. As a scholar of school finance, I would argue that charter school expansion is making this bad situation worse.

Trends in school finance

In my home state of Pennsylvania, schools watched US$1 billion disappear when former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, both cut state funding and refused to replace federal stimulus funding.

A similar pattern unfolded across the country. In 2015, 29 states were still providing less money per pupil than before the recession began. In most states, state aid is designed to assist districts with high needs and low wealth. As a result, high-poverty districts were hurt the most by state cuts.

School finance scholars often consider school funding systems fair when they give additional funds to districts with the greatest needs. For instance, in conjunction with the Education Law Center of New Jersey, Bruce Baker, an education finance scholar at Rutgers University, has developed a measure of school funding fairness. In a majority of states, Baker found that funding fairness declined in the five years after the Great Recession.

Why funding disparities matter

A number of politicians, such as Education Secretary Betsy Devos, reformers, and pundits claim that education spending does not impact student learning. They are wrong.

Over and over, rigorous research has shown that money matters and that increases in funding for low-income students have a positive impact on outcomes. No matter how we define those outcomes – from scores on standardized tests to the probability a student will experience poverty as an adult – the results are consistent. Anyone who says otherwise is misinformed.

The impact of charter expansion

The details of how charter school funding is structured differs by state, and even by districts within a given state. Despite this variation, a number of studies have shown that charter school growth hurts the finances of nearby public school districts. Recent studies from New York and North Carolina have found that charter expansion negatively impacts local districts’ finances above and beyond simply losing per pupil revenue because of declining enrollments.

In Pennsylvania, the local district makes a tuition payment to the charter school enrolling each student from that district. The payment is based on per-pupil spending for similar students. For example, if a fourth grader leaves a public school in the Pittsburgh School District to attend a charter, the Pittsburgh School District is required to pay the charter school $16,805.99 – which is the average amount the district spends on a student in the district.