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Tennessee only state to receive ‘A’ in charter funding study

Jane Roberts, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis • Updated May 2, 2014 at 10:40 AM

(MCT) -- Research of school funding in 30 states with high concentrations of charter schools shows a growing disparity in how they are funded, affecting programs they can offer and how much they can pay their teachers.

Since 2005, when the last study was done, the funding gap has increased by 54 percent, which means that public charters now receive an average of $3,509 less per pupil than traditional schools, according the research released Wednesday by the University of Arkansas.

But in Tennessee, the only state to earn an A in the report, the disparity flows the opposite way. Public charter schools received $1,412 more per pupil than the average public school in Tennessee, largely because its charter operators are prodigious fundraisers.

“I would caution that other funding is highly volatile,” said Larry Maloney, the University of Arkansas researcher who compiled the Tennessee data. “Just because a charter in Tennessee received more funds than district schools, it is not a guarantee that they will continue to receive the funding at such a high level in the future.”

The research is based on 2011 funding figures. It was funded by the Walton Family Foundation, an advocate for charter schools.

Statewide, traditional Tennessee public schools received an average of $7,572 in state and local funds for every student enrolled. Charter schools received $8,221.

But the biggest difference is the amount of nontax money flowing to charters. On average, they received $1,400 per child from other sources or 14.6 percent of their total revenue, compared with 3.3 percent for traditional public schools.

In Memphis, the difference is a testament to the generosity of local foundations, including Hyde, Poplar and Pyramid Peak, which annually invest tens of millions in local charter schools. But it also means charter operators have to be continually trying to raise money.

“I do spend time raising money to meet the gaps for the services and programs we want to provide for our kids,” said Roblin Webb, head of Freedom Prep in southwest Memphis.

Most of her philanthropic funding comes from Tennessee sources, she said.

Charters are free, public schools funded by tax dollars. The difference is they are free of many of the rules traditional public schools must follow. Charters often have longer school days and school years and may require parents to sign contracts guaranteeing their involvement.

Greg Thompson, executive director of the state Charter School Center, based in Memphis, says the study is flawed because it compares average charter funding to average per-pupil funding statewide.

“The more relevant comparison is between charter schools and the district they are located. In this case, the Arkansas study highlights the fact that Tennessee’s charters are underfunded compared to district public companion schools,” he said.

For instance, in Davidson County, the traditional public schools received $13,064 per student. But charters there received only $9,776. In Shelby County, the former city and county districts received an average of $9,882 per student; the charters received $8,907.

Comparing state averages only, Thompson says, does not take into account that the majority of charter schools in the state are in Memphis where more students qualify for federally funded programs, including free schools, which increase the per-pupil funding levels. The problem, he says, lies in differences in the way state funding is doled out. In Tennessee, for example, charters do not have capital funds for buildings but traditional public school districts do.

Nationally, the variance in funding ranges from Tennessee on the high end to Louisiana on the other end, where charters receive $1,086 less per pupil.

As charter school enrollments increase, researchers say the disparity is affecting more students and schools. Charter enrollment between the time the first study on funding was done in 2003 and the Arkansas study in 2011 increased from 582,133 to 1,678,987.

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