Funding Challenges Hinder Charters From the Get-Go (2nd of 2 parts)
Indiana Writers Group column for Sept. 5 and thereafter
(Second of two columns assessing the progress of Indiana charter schools)
By Andrea Neal
INDIANAPOLIS — Charter schools are proving themselves where it counts: on the ISTEP test. Now it’s time for Indiana lawmakers to reward them financially.
Overall, charter schools get about half the money other public schools receive. They don’t qualify for capital funds and can’t recover transportation expenses, which are big-ticket items for their traditional public school counterparts.
But the biggest issue of all – one that no doubt has kept some promising charter school proposals from becoming reality – is they don’t get operating funds from the state until they’ve been in business a semester. Most of the 40 charter schools in operation have had to beg, plead or borrow to get started.
“Right now, new charter schools don’t receive any per pupil funding until January of their first year, and aren’t fully funded until June, usually after the first year’s already over,” said Indianapolis Charter Schools Director Daniel Roy. “As a result, charter schools typically have to take out a loan from the state to help pay for their first year of operations. I think the better policy would be to say, you’ve got charter schools that are serving kids from day one, so they ought to be fully funded from the start.”
Few charter advocates demand equal funding, in part because they see traditional public schools as bloated and wasteful and want to prove they can do more for less. Charter schools tend to have a lower percentage of non-teaching personnel, which reduces per pupil costs.
“I believe firmly that charters should not ask for the same funding as the traditional public schools,” said Irvington Community School President Tim Ehrgott. “We are supposed to be more efficient, focusing on the important things and not on bureaucracy.”
That said, Ehrgott’s two exceptions are building funds and first-semester funding. “I’m paying for our two buildings out of our operating revenue, which is already much less than our resident district. No other school district would accept that, and why should our students’ educational resources be reduced for this reason? … Second, we have more than $1.5 million on our books for the first semester loans.”
Kevin Teasley, president and CEO of the GEO Foundation, sponsor of three Twenty-First Century Charter Schools in Indiana, said the situation must be fixed if charters are to maintain momentum.
“Charters are going to start choking if they don't get money for their buildings and transportation. Charter schools get half the funds traditional schools do yet we have to pay for buildings, administration, transportation, and books, etc. and the teachers. We have all the same requirements to perform yet we get half the funds. Not a level playing field.”
In the five years since the inaugural group of charter schools opened, they have met or exceeded expectations for enrollment and accountability. A few have closed, a few that received authority to open never did, but most are growing in size while raising test scores.
Despite predictions of critics that charter schools would “cream” the best students off the top and weaken the traditional school system, their demographic characteristics closely mirror that of their neighborhoods. Some are appealing specifically to struggling students.
That has been true in Indianapolis where Mayor Bart Peterson has taken advantage of his unique authority to sponsor 17 charter schools so far. “In our experience, many — actually, most — students are behind their peers academically when they first step into a mayor-sponsored school,” Roy said. “For example, the average percentage of students passing both English and math (on the ISTEP test) for a new mayor-sponsored school is just 27 percent.”
Improvement has been remarkable at many. Under Public Law 221, which requires schools to consistently increase achievement scores, six of the 11 schools with biggest gains in Marion County and five of the top 50 in the state were mayor-sponsored charter schools.
There is room for improvement, and the charter school principals are first to admit it. But the debate over the value of charter schools is settled. Now the question is: Does Indiana want to encourage or discourage more of these innovative schools? If the answer is the former, and it should be, lawmakers will have to improve the funding picture.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review. Contact her at email@example.com.