Academics love to debate whether charter schools take money away from school districts and a new research paper from Duke University and the University of Rochester is no different. It also happens to be wrong.
In North Carolina, like in most states, charters receive less public money for each student than district schools do. They don’t receive funding to pay the local supplements for school district employees. And they receive no funding for capital expenditures.
The truth is charter school enrollment actually increases spending per student in school districts. An August 2015 North Carolina Department of Public Instruction study noted “that the presence of charter schools increased the amount of expenditure devoted to instruction per student, despite the overall reduction in per pupil expenditure” (p. 4). And if charter schools want to pay their teachers the same as districts, they use their allocated funds to do so, unlike school systems who receive these funds from county commissioners. Further, charter schools save taxpayers millions of dollars by refurbishing old facilities or building their own without using bonds needed for growing communities.
Families choose charter schools because they are looking for the best academic program that meets the needs of their children. In 2016, two national surveys found that, on average, charter school parents are more satisfied with their children’s schools than are district-school parents. A survey found that 78 percent of parents support having a charter public school open in their neighborhood, with 73 percent in support of more charter schools opening nationwide. Charters outperform district schools on nearly every metric but particularly where it matters the most. Charter school parents are more satisfied with their schools than district school parents are when it comes to five key characteristics: teacher quality, discipline, expectations for achievement, safety, and instruction in character and values.
Rather than pointing fingers, we need to develop a program where districts and charters work together to meet students’ needs, no matter which school they attend. For student groups that require the services of additional personnel and/or contractors with specialized certification, this could mean that we create a system in which we share resources such as psychologists, speech and occupational therapists, and Limited English Proficient specialists. Other opportunities to save money by pooling resources include transportation, janitorial services, maintenance, landscaping, and professional development.
It’s easy to blame charters for all of our funding problems, but the root of the problem is much broader: we need to fix the flawed way we fund our schools.
A recent study from The Public School Forum of North Carolina found that the 10 highest-spending counties spent four times more per child than the 10 lowest-spending counties. This means that poor counties continue to fall behind and our students are experiencing a lack of investment in terms of resources available to their schools.
We continue to see a system in which families with means have options, while families who can’t afford to move into a better school district or choose private schools suffer.
Our goal should be for every child in North Carolina to have access to a quality public education. Right now, we have an opportunity to achieve this goal thanks to the efforts of the Joint Legislative Task Force studying this issue. Instead of blaming charter schools for a public school system that isn’t working for all students and families, we should be looking at ways to address inequalities within our states’ funding system and its effect on kids.
Rhonda Dillingham is the executive director of the NC Association for Public Charter Schools.