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Let’s Stop Shortchanging Colorado’s Charter Schools

Parents who choose a charter school are learning their children most likely are being shortchanged. While recent moves in Colorado would make progress toward evening up funds for charters, the quest for equity still has a long way to go.

Like other public schools, charters cannot charge tuition. They also cannot discriminate against students that come through their doors. Charter schools are different from other public schools in that they are governed by their own boards, often made up of parents, and are able to innovate with programs and personnel.

Charter schools have been a growing part of Colorado’s education landscape for more than 20 years, now serving 11 percent of the public K-12 population. Yet fair funding remains an unrealized goal. A state measure and one for Jefferson County together are poised to bring victories for student funding equity. Still, many charters still would face a sizable deficit.

Last month the University of Arkansas released the most comprehensive study of its kind, showing that nationwide the average charter school receives about $3,000 less per student than its district-run counterpart. Colorado is only relatively fairer, with a charter deficit of $2,230 per student.

Critics have sought to explain away the funding disparity based on the fact that charter schools tend to serve fewer special needs kids. Students with disabilities make up about 7 percent of Colorado’s 96,000 charter students, compared with about 9 percent in other public schools.

But the critique misses the mark. For every 1,000 students, the average non-charter Colorado school serves 23 more with special needs, while receiving an additional $2.23 million. If special education were the sole cause of the funding disparity, then each student with mild or moderate special needs would cost about $100,000.

Clearly, the additional demands associated with serving special needs children do not come close to explaining the sizable funding gap. The biggest disparities come in two areas. First, unlike other public schools, about 80 percent of the state’s charters have to provide their own facilities. Colorado charters pay about $600 per student for building costs out of their operating budgets.

Charters currently have access to special state funds that cover less than one-sixth of their average facilities costs. House Bill 1292, which awaits the governor’s signature to become law, roughly doubles the designated capital dollars.

The second leading cause of the disparity stems from local stinginess with mill levy override (MLO) funds. Districts can share all, some or none of their voter-approved extra property tax dollars with their local charter schools. Data from 2012-13 collected by the Colorado League of Charter Schools show a wide variety of practices.

Like a toddler, some districts have not yet learned to share well. In Littleton, a charter student brought in more than a $1,000 less from MLOs than did a peer on a nearby campus. On the other hand, Brighton charters were almost on par with district-run schools.

In recent years, boards of education in Denver and Douglas County have taken steps to place charters onto a more equal footing.

Meanwhile, a new somewhat smaller step toward equity in Jeffco has generated significant resistance. The board’s three-member majority has promised charters an extra $3.7 million in next year’s budget to cover nearly half of the $1,150 MLO shortfall. The Denver Post rightly called the proposal a matter of “fundamental fairness.”

The Jefferson County Education Association and its allies have responded by shouting down citizens commenting in support of the proposal. Some opponents have insisted Jeffco charters should be satisfied with their small share of MLO dollars. Charters agreed to the arrangement before the 2012 property tax election, opponents say. Yet the only other option was no money at all.

Charter League president Nora Flood describes the Jeffco charters’ decision: “They agreed, but they agreed at the end of the sword.”

Progress is being made toward a fair funding solution for Colorado students. By treating charters as partners rather than as second-class citizens, education leaders can continue the trend.

Ben DeGrow (ben@i2i.org) is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free market think tank. He is also a parent of two students at a Jeffco charter school, where he serves on the board. This article originally appeared in the Greeley Tribune on May 15, 2014. It was republished in the Pueblo Chieftain on May 25, 2014.