Building a new education system with an old financial formula

Jon East

A new report on how charter schools are funded in Florida is a reminder that being different typically comes at a price. Though state policymakers are indeed charting new approaches in the field of public education, their budget writers are still ciphering students in the same old ways. The impact is difficult to overstate.

How Charter School Funding Compares, written by the respected nonprofit Florida TaxWatch, looks beneath the hood of a state funding system that ostensibly delivers the same per-student allocation whether the student is in a traditional public school or a charter school. But what it determines is that charter schools are funded, per student, at roughly 68 to 71 percent of a traditional public school.

This finding might seem at odds with a state that has allowed charter schools since 1996 and has positioned itself among the national leaders with 180,000 students enrolled. But TaxWatch describes the dilemma this way: “Because the charter school model is both a relatively new entrant to the state’s public education system and a rapidly expanding educational delivery option, there is much discussion, and confusion, concerning the differences in funding between charter schools and traditional district schools. Because of a variety of factors, largely stemming from the relational dependency of charter schools on their local authorizing agency, commonly the local school board, questions of equal distribution of funding from federal, state, and local sources have emerged.”

The charter school math works like this: the per-student allocation removes between 2 and 5 percent for district School Board oversight, doesn’t include some local and federal sources or some spending categories deemed not relevant, and takes most of the capital money off the table entirely. That’s how a Florida charter school student ends up worth 70 cents on the public school dollar.

As pinched as that approach may sound, it is more defensible than how Florida funds low-income students who receive Tax Credit Scholarships. In 2009-10, the most recent year for which the state has full statewide school spending data, the maximum scholarship of $3,950 represented only 40.1 percent of the total amount spent per-student in public schools. That same year, when the Legislature increased the number of students who could attend, a legislative budget estimating conference concluded the expansion would save tax money while a companion revenue conference told lawmakers to cut other programs to pay for it. To reach such contradictory results, the two different agencies faithfully followed their historical approaches.

These comparisons are not intended to trivialize the debate. Education budget writers and analysts have spent decades carefully devising formulas to more fairly apportion the local, state and federal money that combines to finance public education. In many states, those formulas are also guided by either constitutional or statutory edicts intended to produce equity among various locales and thus represent a political covenant to education – such as the “Quality Basic Education” in Georgia or the “Minimum Foundation Program” in Louisiana or the “Standards of Quality” in Virginia.

The problem is that these financial frameworks are necessarily tied to the longstanding infrastructure of public education — to the schoolhouses and classrooms that were constructed and staffed to meet the needs of students who attend schools based on geographic zones. As such, the analysts tend to weigh any new option, particularly those that involve private schools, first against their impact to the traditional system. If a student leaves a zoned district school to attend a charter school, for example, is that zoned school left less than whole financially?

These funding formulas deserve respect for what they have achieved, but a newly defined public education system will have to operate under a more robust financial approach. Unfortunately, these kinds of debates too often get caught up in whether one form of education is gaining at the expense of another. The test, rather, should be whether each child is funded equitably to attend a learning option that best suits his or her needs.

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