Funding Disparity Highlights Inequality Between District, Charter Students

Funding disparities between district and charter schools are growing, fueling inequality among public schools that must be addressed if all U.S. students are to be competitive in the global economy. There's a prevailing perception that public charter schools are better funded than district schools. In fact, research shows that the opposite is true, and the myths about charter school resources distract from fruitful discussions on how to achieve resource equity in terms of both funding and facilities. Any discussion of inequity should focus on ensuring that all public school students, whether they attend a district or charter school, have access to the same resources.

Charter school students are public school students who deserve access to the same funding and facilities as students in district schools. In practice, however, only a portion of the money that would fund a student's district-school education follows the student to a public charter school.

An April report from the University of Arkansas details the funding disparity between district and charter schools in 30 states where charters have a big presence and the District of Columbia. On average, charters received $3,814 less per student from state, federal and private funders than district schools received in the 2011 fiscal year, the most recent data the study examined.

In many major cities, the gap was even larger. In Newark, N.J., charter schools faced a disparity of $11,602 per student, one of the largest disparities in the nation. In Trenton, N.J., the disparity was $15,229. New York City's gap was $7,623; in D.C., $12,736; in Detroit, $6,964. District schools even received more private, philanthropic funding than charter schools did, with district schools receiving an average of $571 per pupil, while charters received $552.

Charter schools also receive much less in the way of facilities funding. District schools are given much better access to and funding for facilities. While district schools received access to buildings for free, charter schools often have to buy or pay rent for their buildings, which piles on additional charges, even though charter budgets are already tighter than district budgets. Activists hail initiatives like New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio's plan to make charters pay rent for co-locations as leveling the playing the field. In reality, they perpetuate an imbalance in resources that puts public charter school students at a disadvantage.

It's critical that governments and administrators treat public charter school students and district school students equitably. Several states are already tackling this issue head-on through innovative approaches. California voters in 2000 passed Proposition 39 requiring equal access to district facilities for charter school students. Twelve states have participated in the Charter School Facilities Initiative, which examines funding policies to identify and address resource disparity. Of those 12, as of 2013 Colorado, Massachusetts and Tennessee provide an annual per-pupil facilities allowance that reflects actual average district capital costs. Georgia, Indiana, New York and South Carolina offer charters the right of refusal to purchase or lease closed, unused or underused public school facilities at or below market value.

Equity requires that funding should follow a student to whatever public school she attends to ensure that all students have access to equal resources regardless of whether they attend a district or public charter school. It also means breaking down the barriers preventing public charter schools from accessing public school facilities -- especially those that are underutilized or vacant. All public school students, whether enrolled in district or charter schools, deserve to have access to the same opportunities and resources.

Equity should mean real equality for everyone. Most of all, education reform should be aimed at creating an education system that serves all students, and gives everyone a quality education that prepares them for college and a rewarding career.

Mashea Ashton is the chief executive officer of the Newark Charter School Fund. She holds a master's degree in special education from The College of William & Mary, and taught in several failing school districts before becoming a full-time advocate for comprehensive education reform.