Traditional Public Schools should complain about the funding mechanisms…Not charter schools

By Andrew Pillow

It is no secret in education circles that traditional public schools and charter schools have developed an adversarial relationship. For those who are unfamiliar with the debate, traditional public school advocates allege that charter schools “steal” funding from traditional public schools.

There are some legitimate criticisms of charter schools on an individual level, but stealing funding is absolutely not one of them.

In most places school funding is distributed at least partially through head counts. Meaning the money follows the child. For example: Let’s say a state is paying out $5000 per student to schools. If a public school has 300 students, then they receive $1,500,000. If that same school only has 150 students, they only receive $750,000 from the same source. Charter schools are technically public schools too, so they also receive head count money.

Therein lies the issue for traditional public school advocates. If students within the district go to a charter school, the traditional public school no longer receives that money. Some public school advocates have taken this scenario and framed it as some type of miscarriage of funding. Some even going as far to call it "stealing". This must be refuted fully.

The government is responsible for paying for public education. The most efficient way to do this is to pay out funds per pupil. It does not make sense to fund a school for students that are not being taught at said school. Furthermore, what other facet of government operates any other way? The money follows the student because the priority is the student. Additionally, it should also be noted that charter schools in fact get LESS funding than traditional public schools.

Now to be fair… traditional public schools didn’t wake up one day and decide to hate charter schools. There are very real obstacles that arise with dwindling enrollment. Chief among those is the fixed nature of infrastructure costs. If a school was built to accommodate 1000 students and it’s enrollment is down 300, the building doesn’t magically cost less. Schools still have to spend the same amount of money on their building which leaves less money for actual education. For example, this is the scenario in Indianapolis Public Schools and was summed up by Chalkbeat a few months ago.

“Numbers obtained by Chalkbeat reveal that the district has more than twice as many seats in secondary schools as it has students to fill them. Those extra seats come at a price, because schools that are just a quarter full still bear high costs for services like heating, security and maintenance throughout the building.”

So traditional public schools do have a legit gripe about the hand they have been dealt, but that hand was dealt well before the advent of charter schools. It’s important to note that if students choose NOT to attend a traditional public school for ANY reason, the end result is still the same. Which is less funding for the school. What this means is that a variety of other factors have likely contributed to the predicament that public schools are in today such as…

1.       The “White Flight” phenomena. Inner city school districts have been hemorrhaging white students to the suburbs ever since the 60s and 70s. Losing students in general hurts the bottom line as discussed earlier but this is particularly the case when talking about the often more affluent white students. Not only did schools lose the students, but in many cases districts lost the tax base.

2.       District to district shifts. Many cities don’t have just one public school system. Indianapolis for example has several. And Indianapolis Public Schools has lost quite a few students but the township schools, also within the county limits have actually gained students. For example, Indianapolis Public Schools had a 21.09% decrease in their total enrollment from 2005 to 2015. The neighboring township of Beech Grove had a 26.20% increase during the same period. As a matter of fact all of the other neighboring township schools had an increase during the same period except for one. Additionally, these are not just white students. Many of the township schools have demographics similar to what you would expect in a traditionally inner city school. So even minorities have fallen for the allure of suburban sprawl.

3.       Changing age demographics. The United States was in the midst of a youth bulge during school integration. The Baby boomers outnumbered their parents and grand parents combined. School age children were the largest block of the population. Schools were packed which makes for well-funded schools under the head count model. Especially when you consider that at that point most people who lived in the cities actually lived within the taxable boundaries not in a suburb. But now, the population pyramid has evened out. Baby boomers and their children our out of school and aging. Not only are people moving away from the interior of the cities but increasingly public funding has to be diverted to things like Medicare and social security.

The bottom line is this. Traditional public schools have problems outside of charter schools. It is perfectly reasonable for public schools to demand more money based on the hand they have been dealt over the last few years. It is not reasonable to blame charter schools. Nor is it helpful. Charters are here. Rather people like them or not, they exist and traditional schools have to deal and adapt.

Maybe schools need to close buildings and consolidate students. Or maybe they need to direct their attention to policy. Lots of school districts have already come to the conclusion that school funding needs a makeover. Some districts are evaluating the role of property tax. Some are experimenting using income tax. Regardless, what worked in the 50s and 60s does not produce the same outcomes today.  Public schools and charter schools should work together on comprehensive funding reform and that, is a policy issue. But alas, politicians love to have charters and public schools fighting over the crumbs because it keeps them from asking for the bread... and unfortunately when schools fight, children lose.

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.