Memo to charter school advocates: Get your facts straight; stop undermining traditional public education

North Carolina charter advocates continually complain of an “unfair” funding system despite regularly outspending comparable traditional public schools. An analysis of expenditure data from the ’18-19 school year indicates that charter schools maintain a small, $83 per-student local funding advantage over similar public schools. Charter advocates seeking greater investment in charter students should stop trying to take money from the less-advantaged traditional sector and instead work together to ensure state leaders deliver adequate funding for all students.

North Carolina’s schools – both traditional schools and charters – receive funding from three sources: state, local, and federal. In all cases, funding for charters is on par with funding for traditional public schools.

In the ’18-19 school year, federal funding (excluding child nutrition funding) comprised just 6% of operating expenditures in traditional schools, compared to 4% in charter schools. But traditional and charter schools compete for federal funds on relatively equal funding. The vast majority of federal funding supports students from families with low incomes (Title I) and students with disabilities (IDEA). Traditional schools’ “advantage” in federal spending simply reflects that traditional public schools enroll a higher share of students from families with low incomes and students with disabilities.

Traditional and charter schools compete on pretty much equal funding when it comes to state funding, as well. Essentially, charters receive the same per-student funding of the district in which the charter school is located, except that a charter’s amounts for English learners and students with disabilities are calculated based on actual enrollment in the charter school. Contrary to the claims of charter advocates, charter schools receive an equal per-student share of transportation funding. To the extent charters are shortchanged, it’s that they aren’t eligible for state funding for replacement school buses (they should be). But charters also benefit from allotments like At-Risk and Disadvantaged Student Supplemental Funding that are calculated based on county-wide estimates of student need despite charters having fewer at-risk or disadvantaged students.

It’s local funding that has consistently been the subject of charter advocates’ dishonest whining. Specifically, they have falsely claimed that, when it comes to local funding, “for every one dollar sent to traditional public schools, public charters receive less than 75 cents.” The claim appears absurd on its face, as per-student spending in charter schools exceeded spending in traditional public schools by $246 per student in ’18-19 (see Tables 25 and 40.2 of DPI’s Statistical Profile). To be fair, that comparison overstates charters’ local spending advantage. Charter students disproportionately hail from urban districts with higher levels of local spending. But the charter advantage remains even after adjusting for students’ residence. Per-pupil local spending in traditional districts where the average charter student lives was $2,485 in 18-19, while their charter schools spent $2,567 per student, a difference of $83 per student.

The difference is quite small in the grand scheme of things. But hopefully the analysis of actual data will finally convince charter leaders from pretending they receive “a fraction of the funding that traditional public schools receive.” If charter leaders think their funding is too low (in most charter schools it probably is!), then they should be advocating for greater funding for all public schools. More specifically, the state’s plan for bringing an end to the long-running Leandro court case by providing a constitutional education to all students would increase state funding in charter schools by about 40 percent, or $2,500 per student.

For charter schools, there is little to be gained from continually trying to slice away funding from their traditional school counterparts. Charter leaders sincerely interested in securing additional funding for their students should stop the dishonest whining, and instead unite with the public school advocates seeking to deliver adequately funded schools for all of North Carolina’s public school students.

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.

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