In Partnership with The 74

Charter schools receive $5,721 less per student than district schools, new research finds

Naomi Nix | May 12, 2017



From Camden, New Jersey, to Los Angeles, funding for charter schools continues to lag behind that of traditional public schools in many cities by an average of $5,721 per student, according to a new report from researchers at the University of Arkansas.

The university’s Department of Education Reform on Wednesday released “Charter School Funding: Inequity in the City,” which compares revenue for charter and traditional public schools from federal, state, local, and non-public sources during the 2013–14 academic year. The research focuses on 14 cities with a high concentration of charter school enrollment.

“[Charter schools] can’t even get close to equity because they have gotten less funding from all forms of government,” said Patrick Wolf, an education professor at the university and one of the study’s authors.

The metropolitan regions with the greatest per-pupil funding disparities were Camden, New Jersey, where the gap was $14,771 per pupil, followed by Washington, D.C., which had a $13,874 disparity. Charter schools received $7,173 less money per student in Oakland, California, and $6,665 less in Los Angeles.

Memphis was the only city, the researchers found, where charters received more money than their district counterparts. There, traditional public schools were awarded $9,720 for every student, while charter schools garnered $10,624 — a $904 difference. Researchers attributed the difference to the ability of those charter schools to attract philanthropic contributions.

Building on previous research by the university, the report’s authors also found that between 2011 and 2014, district-charter funding gaps narrowed in four out of eight cities where there were available data, including a 63 percent decrease in Atlanta, 27 percent in Indianapolis, 25 percent in Houston, and 3 percent in New York City.

Meanwhile, the funding disparity widened by 48 percent in Los Angeles, 42 percent in Denver, 34 percent in Washington, D.C., and 5 percent in Boston.

The authors have faced criticism in the past from other researchers who say their comparisons are inappropriate because, for example, their figures don’t include expenses such as building maintenance, transportation, or new construction that districts face while charter schools might not.

In response, the University of Arkansas researchers acknowledged that school districts may have additional financial constraints, but they maintained that they should remain part of the comparison and not be “obscured.”

The report’s authors also addressed the contention that differences in student populations are the reason district schools receive more money: While it’s true that traditional public schools are more likely to educate special-needs students, they wrote, the data show those funding differences are clear only in Atlanta and Boston.

The researchers also found that local funding streams — property and sales taxes — are the biggest contributors to the disparity between district schools and charters. About half of cities, including Boston, Houston, and Indianapolis, contributed no local funds to charter schools while appropriating money for traditional public schools.

Camden was a notable exception: That city allocates $298 more in local funding to each charter school student, the report said.

Disclosure: The report was funded by the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds The 74.

Read Next