Choice and consequences

The cost of charter growth: New research estimates the price tag for districts

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Charter school teachers, principals and staff members gather at a rally organized by Families for Excellent Schools.

As charter schools have expanded, critics across the country have offered a similar complaint: they drain money from public school districts.

A new study puts a price tag on this.

In one North Carolina district, officials had $500 to $700 less to spend on each of its remaining students because 15 percent of local students attended charter schools in the 2013-14 school year, according to the research. That burden falls on the district because some costs, like building maintenance, don’t immediately drop even when there are fewer students to teach.  

It’s a substantial hit — between 6 and 8 percent of state and local school spending in the district, Durham County. And it underscores the challenge facing districts where students are choosing other options for school, but the school district itself struggles to cut spending enough to make up for the lost funding.

Charter schools “may expand choice for some students while imposing costs on taxpayers and students that remain in district schools,” write researchers Helen Ladd and John Singleton.

When charter schools attract students, districts struggle to cut

Not all school district spending is created equal. Some things, like the size of the teaching force, or the number of textbooks, can be cut fairly easily when a district loses students. Others are more fixed — building costs and most central office administration, for example.

The research, which has not yet been formally peer-reviewed, used detailed financial data from several districts to sort their spending this way and then estimate what districts’ spending would look like without local charter schools.

For Durham County, where about 15 percent of students attended charters in the 2013–14 school year, the extra burden on the district came out to between $500 and $700 per student. In several less urban North Carolina districts with fewer charters, the impact was more modest but still negative, usually less than $300 per student.

Other research has come to similar conclusions for two urban New York districts, Buffalo and Albany, where charters had even larger negative financial impacts on the local school districts. (There has been no national research on the issue, and the financial effect of charters varies based on how individual districts and charter schools are funded.)

This kind of research is tricky, because it requires complicated judgments about which district costs are fixed and which are variable — and most aren’t clearly one or the other. For instance, although the new North Carolina study categorizes buildings and school administration as “fixed,” districts could reduce both by closing schools.

“In the long run, costs may not be fixed at all,” said Ladd, a Duke professor.

At the same time, even so-called variable costs, like teacher salaries, aren’t always easy to reduce immediately.

“If Durham, for example, loses 15 percent of its students, that doesn’t mean all those students are going to come from a particular school where you can cut back classrooms,” Ladd said.

One part of school choice discussion

The findings go straight to heart of the national debate about charter schools. Supporters say they give students added options and can spur improvement in district schools; critics respond that choice comes at the cost of other students, who may see their schools lose money and even close as a result.

The latest study complicates the idea that each student’s share of resources should be individually divvied out — often referred to by school choice supporters as the “the money following the child.”

How does all of this affect student learning? If district schools everywhere were losing hundreds of extra dollars, like Durham, you might expect their test scores to decline. Past research says district schools nearby charters usually don’t see their scores drop,  including in North Carolina, but that could be because most of those studies don’t look at school districts as a whole, and thus might not capture the effect of lost resources.

District schools in New York City saw scores rise a bit from being located close to a charter school, according to a recent analysis. Those schools actually had their spending increase and student–teacher ratios fall as they lost students.

For now, Ladd and Singleton’s research sheds light on one important component in the debate about charters, not the full package of pros and cons.

“For evaluating the social value of charter schools, a more complete analysis of benefits and costs would be required,” Ladd and Singleton write. “That analysis would have to include any benefits from charter school expansion through greater choice for parents and children, as well as any additional costs in the form of, for example, greater racial or economic isolation.”

Spread the wealth

A few Colorado charter schools won ‘the lottery’ in this year’s round of school construction grants

Samantha Belmontes, 7, tries to keep a foam ball rolling in the center of her tennis racket for as long as she can in a class at Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in 2011. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Five Colorado charter schools are among the nearly three dozen schools getting new roofs, HVAC systems, or even entire new buildings courtesy of state land proceeds, lottery funds, and marijuana tax revenue.

The State Board of Education this month approved $275 million in grants through the Building Excellent Schools Today or BEST program, with schools and districts contributing an additional $172 million for $447 million in total construction projects.

This is the largest award the state has ever given, a 60 percent increase from the nearly $172 million given out last year. It’s also likely to be the largest award for some time to come. With this grant cycle, the board that oversees the BEST program used up its existing ability to issue debt, similar to the limit on a credit card, and next year’s grants will be limited to cash awards of roughly $85 million.

Charter schools traditionally have not done well in the competition for BEST grant money – a sore point for advocates because the schools can’t bond off property tax revenue like school districts can –  but this year, with more to spend overall, the committee that distributes the money also gave more of it to charter schools.

In a typical year, the grant program funds about half of the requests that come in, after prioritizing them based on a number of criteria, including health and safety concerns. This year, almost 70 percent of requests were funded.

Jeremy Meyer, a spokesperson for Colorado Department of Education, said officials in the capital construction program also made a deliberate effort to reach out to charter schools and explain the requirements of the grant program. Some of the successful applicants had applied before and were able to make refinements to this year’s applications. Representatives of charter schools, meanwhile, said this iteration of the BEST board seems more receptive to their needs.

“A lot of it was a function of them having more resources to distribute,” said Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “It’s a very positive development, but it’s important to keep it in context that over the last five years, charter schools have received in aggregate less than 1 percent of the funding.”

About 13 percent of Colorado students attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run and exempt from some rules.

Legislation passed in the 2018 session increases the amount of marijuana tax money going to the grant program to 90 percent of all recreational marijuana excise tax revenue. Before, it had been capped at $40 million a year, even as the state took in far more pot tax money than was originally projected. Of this money, 12.5 percent will be set aside for charter school facilities needs.

However, state lawmakers balked at allowing the BEST program to borrow off of marijuana revenue, given the uncertain regulatory future under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is hostile to legal marijuana.

Without the ability to issue new debt, future awards are more likely to go to roof replacements and new heating and cooling systems than to new buildings, like the new elementary school approved in Adams 14 or the new buildings for Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in northwest Denver and Swallows Charter Academy in Pueblo.

Having the state fund a new building for a charter school is “like winning the lottery,” said Jane Ellis, who works with charters to find low-cost financing for their facilities.

This was Flores Magón Academy’s third attempt at getting a BEST grant. The state-authorized charter school serves roughly 300 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, most of them from low-income families. The school sits in a pocket of unincorporated Adams County at West 53rd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, near Regis University, and most of the school’s families live in Denver.

In 2011, the school bought the Berkeley Gardens Elementary building, which had been shuttered for a decade. The school was built in 1906 and has several additions.

“Each add-on is very unique and reflective of its decade and comes with its own delightful challenges,” said Kaye Taavialma, a former executive director of the school who is working as a consultant on the building project. “We have to be very cognizant and aware of any precipitation.”

The roof leaks, the pipes leak, there aren’t enough bathrooms, and there’s asbestos in the walls and in the glue that holds down multiple layers of carpet. Portions of the school have been blocked off due to mold problems. The office is in the center of the building, without a clear line of sight on the entrances, creating security concerns. During one storm, a window blew out in a classroom. Fortunately, no students were injured, Taavialma said.

The school got $15.5 million from the BEST program and through a waiver only has to contribute $818,000 to the total project cost, rather than the $3.3 million that would normally be required under a state matching formula. The new building will be built on the site of the play fields and should open to students during the 2020-21 school year.

“For our school, this is tremendous because coming up with $3 million would have been darn near impossible,” Taavialma said. “As we see charters continue to proliferate and they’re being asked to move into buildings that either weren’t constructed to be school buildings, or like we experienced, a school building that has been sitting vacant for a long time, I hope this is a trend that continues.”

You can see the full list of grant winners here.

Fund Students First

Memphis locals rally for extra school funding, demanding it be spent on student needs

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
About 40 education advocates met before today's commission meeting to rally for more direct funding for student needs.

Lobbying for how Shelby County Schools should spend an extra $12.7 million just granted from the county’s surplus, a crowd of 40 parents, students, and education advocates lined the glass-paneled doors of the county commission office today and demanded the money be used to “fund students first.”

But after the commission voted to use the funds only for one-time expenses instead of recurring costs, it is unclear that the advocates’ demands will be met.

Among the crowd was Brenda Crawford, a former student at Georgian Hills Middle, where she said she’s had “firsthand experience with ripped textbooks, leaky roofs, permanent subs, lack of technology, and cut programs.”

Now a rising sophomore at Trezevant High School, Crawford joined Campaign for School Equity’s Student Advocacy Program to push for better college preparation.

“If we get more funding for health specialists and AP classes, then our academic growth can go higher and then kids can have a better learning experience,” she said.

Participating organizations included Stand for Children Tennessee, Campaign for School Equity, Tennessee Charter School Center, Shelby County Young Democrats, the Memphis Grassroots Organizing Coalition, Memphis Education Fund, Memphis LIFT, Catholic peace group Pax Christi, and grassroots organization Gray Panthers. Leaders in these groups know the power of collective action. The last time they stood together, the commission approved a $22 million boost for local schools.

“Partnership is obviously really important,” said Carl Schneider, community organizer for Stand for Children. “I think sometimes these education advocacy groups are seen as really disparate, and funding for our schools is something everyone can really rally behind.”

District leaders originally planned to use the funds for additional services such as behavioral specialists, workforce training, school resource officers, and school counselors.

“Our schools need every one of those things,” said Daniel Henley, a pastor at Journey Christian Church. “And I think this $12.7 million is just a start… Yes to behavioral specialists, yes to guidance counselors – we need them all.”

But some parents are wary that the money may not be spent responsibly, and they urged each other to hold school leaders accountable.

“I don’t want you to make more administrative positions, or make more offices,” said Mahalia Brown, whose son just graduated from Memphis Business Academy. “Make sure the money goes to the kids, to the teachers, to people who actually need it, not just administration.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of Memphis LIFT, said she wants the money to go to efforts that tackle adverse childhood experiences as well as special education and facilities fees for charter schools. Her biggest wish, though, was that the money not go to waste.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Commissioner Eddie Jones, a supporter of the extra funding, talks with Memphis LIFT parents before the meeting.

“If you got all that money before, and now you’re coming back asking for more money, you’re just throwing money at things and ain’t nothing happening,” she said. “You don’t give kids $100 to go to the mall and they come back with a pack of candy and all their money is gone.”

Commissioners Van Turner and Eddie Jones are both graduates of Memphis public schools. At the pre-meeting rally, they echoed support for additional funding – and for spending it wisely.

“Funding education and funding education properly are the greatest public safety platform or plan that we can have,” Turner said.

If the commission can come back with a plan to make a “smart dollar investment” in its local public schools, said state representative Raumesh Akbari, then political groups like the Shelby County Democratic Caucus and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators will have renewed momentum.

“You’ll give us the credibility when we go into this new administration in 2019 and we talk about sending some state dollars down to match those county dollars,” he said.