Myth buster: Do charter schools take money from school districts?

Charter schools were started in the early 90’s to give parents and students more choices when it came to their education.

Now, nearly 20 percent of parents send their kids to a charter school. But there is much confusion about how charter schools are funded and whether that funding comes from districts.

“Most Americans have been raised in a world where there is one school system run by one group of people and they get all the money,” Derrell Bradford, executive vice president of 50Can, an organization that works to provide high-quality education to all kids, said. “Over time this country is moving to a different way of funding schools where multiple people run schools and the dollars follow the child.”

Essentially, Bradford is referring to the fundamental shift in education where parents can now send their students to traditional district schools, or not. Either way, charter schools are funded the same way public schools are funded – according to enrollment numbers or average daily attendance (ADA). This means districts do not pay for students to go to charter schools, the state taxpayers do.

“We (charters) don’t have a tax base like a district school so we’re unable to go for an override or a bond election…basically, we get money based on the number of students that chose to come to our schools,” said Phoenix International Academy Executive Director Ivette Rodriguez.

In other words, charter schools cannot ask the voters to approve more funding on top of state funding at an election called an override election. Further, while school districts can ask the local taxpayers if they want to raise local property taxes to build schools, charter schools must pay for school buildings out of the state funding they receive for each student who attends their schools.

The misconception that charter schools are taking money from districts is simply a twist on the fact that parents now choose options other than their assigned district school. But for many districts, this does not interfere with their ability to ask for money from voters, even if they have fewer students.

“The political mind has changed a lot about how we support school districts,” Bradford said, “which is why we have all these school finance discussions. The take away is that school districts used to be a fixed cost model, they just got as big as they wanted to be, and it was the state’s responsibility to fund that no matter who went there. That is not how state governments and local governments are dealing with schools today. Charter schools are incidental to this.”

Nationwide, charter schools are funded at approximately 64 percent of their district counterparts, averaging $7,131 per pupil rather than $11,184 in total per pupil at funding district schools, according to a 2014 Center for Education Reform report. The reason for this disparity is the ability of districts to raise taxes at the local level for construction and operational spending.

For Arizona, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, in fiscal year 2017, the per pupil cost was $9,474 for school districts and $8,523 for charter schools.

“If you fund on how many kids are in a school, every school has what it needs,” Bradford said. “When I spend a dollar at one place instead of another, that doesn’t mean taking a dollar from one place. That is me spending a dollar elsewhere.”

Rodriguez believes that instead of turning the funding issue into a district versus charter school debate it should be how do good schools spend their money versus how do moderate schools spend their money?

“I hate to make it a district versus charter thing because I think fundamentally it should be a good schools versus bad schools thing. I think good schools spend their money in a way that’s going to impact the students the most, bad schools make different choices,” Rodriguez said. “The money should not belong to any school if they don’t have a child there.”

Emily Richardson

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