This year’s National Charter Schools Week is an especially poignant celebration as many states are reaching 20th and 25th anniversaries of their charter school laws (our state of Connecticut included). This moment provides a great opportunity for reflection. The charter school movement has learned many lessons over two-plus decades, but perhaps none as urgent as the need to fix the way we fund charter schools and make laws more equitable for children. And to do that, we have to challenge a premise on which charters were founded. As a law student, I was part of a team that filed one of the nation’s first constitutional lawsuits challenging the funding inequalities in Newark, New Jersey. The case was ultimately unsuccessful, but we learned a lot in the process. One lesson was that in order to win funding equity for charter students, we needed to change some minds, even the minds of friends of charters. During the lawsuit, I sought the advice of a former Republican state senator in New Jersey who had been one of my law professors. In talking to him about the case, he told me that he was one of the lawmakers who passed the first charter school law in New Jersey. He reminded me that charter advocates claimed that their schools would “do more with less” and found it odd that we would now come back to demand more equitable funding.
Funding Inequity Cannot StandMany charter advocates—20 years ago— did promise to do more with less. We knew we had to take less just to get the opportunity to be born. Today we know that if we’re going to grow and serve the tens of thousands of families on charter waiting lists, this funding inequity cannot stand. Indeed, as a whole, charters have done way more with much less. Imagine what we could do if the financial playing field was balanced. We’ve learned much since the early days of chartering: the power of high expectations for every student, aligned school cultures where management and teachers are on the same page, increased parent involvement, and the power of choice to empower families. We have learned that building schools where these innovations are possible at scale can be incredibly costly and our current systems don’t meet the need. There are major gaps in charter school funding that were written into those early laws. These gaps cause many schools and networks to rely on philanthropy to cover costs. And in places where the need is great but philanthropy is less available, successful charters have to move mountains in order to grow to serve more children. Some pull it off, but many often can’t. Moreover, we’ve learned that the omission of facilities from our charter school laws is a hurdle that is bigger than anyone expected. Talk to a charter school founder and he or she will tell you that this is the single biggest barrier they face. In absence of free access to school buildings and reliable public funding for facilities, schools must take funding meant for teachers, social workers, kids and classrooms and instead pay for rent and building repairs.
Students of Color Are Bearing the BurdenThese aren’t just wonky technical details, they’re downright unconstitutional and discriminatory. And the burden is being shouldered by mostly low-income, Black and Latino students. According to a University of Arkansas study, New York’s charter school students receive only 75 cents on every dollar received by their friends and neighbors who attend district schools. The disparity in New York ranges from $5,200 per student to a gap of nearly $10,000 per student in western New York. In Connecticut, our data show that charter students receive nearly $4,000 less per student in public operating funding, compared to their peers in district schools. That’s why the Northeast Charter Schools Network is supporting a lawsuit on behalf of New York’s charter school families challenging this inequality through the court system. New York’s highest court has ruled that adequate school facilities is a necessary “instrumentality of learning” for all public schools, and charter students deserve no less. Charter educators and families in Buffalo (where the disparity is greatest at 60 cents on the dollar) recently held an event where they decried being treated as three-fifths of a person—harkening back to another kind of insidious discrimination enshrined in law. In Connecticut, public charter students and teachers must go to the Capitol every year to fight for literally every seat in every charter school in the state—that is, they must fight for every inequitably funded seat their school needs to serve the students whose futures depend on that education. The Constitution State is literally the only state in the nation that funds its charter students like this, and they have 10 other formulas for how other schools of choice get funded. The funding disparity between charter and district students is ugly, the system is broken, and if we are going to fuel the next 20 years of charter school innovation and growth, we need to fix it.
It's About Political WillAnyone who understands how charter schools are funded can tell you how to fix this problem, so it is not for lack of solutions. It’s about political will and the fight over scarce education dollars. Charter opponents like to use their complaints about district school funding as an excuse for why lawmakers shouldn’t help charter students. This baffles me. If districts are under-funded, where does that put charters? Reasonable minds can differ on what is the magic amount of funding that every public school needs, but regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, it is empirical fact that charter students are getting only a fraction of what other kids receive. We should be fighting together for all children, yet charters face constant, unprovoked attacks on even the most incremental efforts to address the charter funding inequity—even in years when we see major increases for district schools. Self-professed advocates for poor children regularly lobby against those very children when their families decide to enroll them in charter schools. And with anywhere from 10 to almost 20 percent of charter schools in our states with unionized teachers, their teachers unions are often lobbying directly against their members’ interests. These fights aren’t likely to subside anytime soon but we have learned invaluable lessons over the past 20-plus years. Here’s to the next 20, where I am hoping the focus will be all about equity for our children.
Kyle Rosenkrans is CEO of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, which advocates for charter schools in New York and Connecticut, and was former civil rights attorney who has represented hundreds of parents and children in matters involving special education and disability law.