Fixing school funding

The DN says the state needs to think harder about how it funds charter schools:

Last week, Auditor General Jack Wagner released a report that found that the methods for funding charter schools are inequitable, inefficient, and bear no relationship to the actual cost of educating kids.

Given taxpayers spent nearly a $1 billion on charters in the 2008-09 school year, Wagner is calling for a moratorium on new charter and cyber charter schools until the formula is fixed.

The flawed funding scheme works like this: Charter schools get their money from their authorizing district; for each student that moves from a district school to a charter, a per-pupil tuition payment goes from the district to the charter. The state reimburses districts for a percentage of that to cover services provided to all students (like testing fees), but also to allow districts to maintain their operations expenses regardless of how many students opt to attend charter schools.

The problem is that charters around the state often attract students from multiple school districts, and each district has a different per-pupil tuition rate: in one such example cited in the report, one charter school got students from more than 10 districts; each district paid a different tuition, ranging from $7201-$11,337 per student. This means that the charter school payments don't reflect the actual cost of educating students - underscored by the fact that cyber schools receive the same tuitions as bricks-and-mortar schools. It also means high-tuition districts are subsidizing students from districts that don't pay as much.

Charter advocates, like the recently formed Philadelphia Charters for Excellence, say that calling for a moratorium is an extreme reaction; many others oppose it, saying that students shouldn't have their school choices limited by the flawed formula.

We support a moratorium, with one reservation: The funding formula for charter schools can't really be separated from the overall school funding strategy - and we don't know how the actual cost for educating students can, or should, be a reliable factor. It's a complex problem, with no quick fix.

But this is a huge public expenditure, so a moratorium is the only responsible thing to do - at least until a clearly defined roadmap for a larger solution is in place. In the end, a moratorium will provide an impetus for addressing this problem. If nothing else, a moratorium will motivate charter school operators and elected officials who support charters to push for action - not just more talk.

Follow us on Twitter and review city services on our sister site, City Howl.