By Aaron Churchill and Chad L. Aldis
In a recent Los Angeles Times editorial, Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman and the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten blasted the private-school choice programs that the Trump Administration has strongly promoted. They built their case, in part, on the notion that public schools are “open to all,” while stating that private schools are not. But can public schools claim the high ground on admissions? Is every public school district really open to all?
In the words of football analyst Lee Corso: “Not so fast.” Consider Fordham’s home state of Ohio where, like most states, boundary lines have long determined public-school assignments. For many families, their “zoned” schools are fine and were very likely a driving force during the home-buying process. Other parents, however, might prefer to send their child to another district. They may want access to a specialized academic program or to ensure their kids attend a school that is nearer to their home than the one assigned to them, even if it means crossing a district boundary.
To offer parents more interdistrict opportunities, Ohio legislators enacted one of the nation’s first open enrollment laws in 1989. This public-school-choice policy permits students to attend another district without the burden of relocation or tuition payments. Today, more than 70,000 Ohio students use open enrollment to cross district lines. Forty-three other states allow some form of interdistrict open enrollment.
But here’s the hitch. Under Ohio policy, each district decides whether to participate in open enrollment. Four out of five Buckeye districts agree to accept students from outside their zoned boundaries. Many of these districts have practical reasons to participate, as the funds associated with inbound students may help to widen academic offerings, ease local tax burdens, or simply deal with the fiscal consequences of enrollment loss.
Of course, this also means that 20 percent of districts refuse to admit all comers. Figure 1 shows the systematic pattern of non-participation the Buckeye State: almost all of them serve suburban communities adjacent to Ohio’s largest cities. These major urban districts—including Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus—have student populations that are, on average, 63 percent black and Hispanic, and the districts have long struggled with low student achievement. In contrast, the non-participating districts on their borders enroll far fewer minority youngsters (18 percent) and post some of the highest test scores in the state. The dark blue “doughnuts” around the major cities clearly demonstrate how the refusal of most suburban districts to open enroll students severely limits the public school options of urban students who might benefit from exiting their home districts.
Figure 1. Ohio school districts by open-enrollment status: 2013–14 school year
A new Fordham study, Interdistrict Open Enrollment in Ohio: Participation and Student Outcomes, finds that less advantaged students do indeed appear to benefit from open enrolling. Researchers Deven Carlson of the University of Oklahoma and Stéphane Lavertu of The Ohio State University examine student-level data from 2009 to 2014 to track outcomes of Ohio’s open enrollees. While most open enrollees reside in rural and small town areas—locales where virtually every district participates—sufficient numbers of urban or African American students open enrolled over this period to carry out a rigorous analysis of their achievement outcomes.
While not causal evidence, their analysis links open enrollment among African American pupils with gains of approximately 10 percentiles on state assessments—equivalent to moving from the 50th to 60th percentile statewide in math or reading achievement. Their analysis also relates open enrollment to positive gains among students (regardless of race) who reside in one of Ohio’s eight highest-poverty urban districts. These results likely overlap to a certain degree—city schools in Ohio are disproportionately black—and apply to pupils who open enroll over several years. Those who participate less consistently experience no distinguishable gains or losses, nor do open enrollees from smaller towns or rural communities. As for on-time graduation outcomes, they find a promising uptick for students who open enroll throughout high school, though only one cohort was studied.
The findings uncovered in this study parallel to some extent recent analyses of housing vouchers. According to research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and colleagues, a federal program that transplanted families from inner cities into higher-income communities improved young children’s later-life outcomes, including college matriculation and adult wages. While not as far-reaching as relocation, the evidence from Ohio suggests that consistent interdistrict open enrollment among children from urban areas can also put them on a more promising trajectory, at least through their elementary and secondary years.
We acknowledge that some closed districts may not have the capacity to enroll many additional students. We also realize that some residents may not like the idea of educating kids whose families don’t pay taxes in their towns, whether those prospective arrivals live in poor urban areas or wealthy districts nearby. We understand too that, for many families, it’s simply impractical to make long, daily treks across district lines.
At the very least, however, we ask today’s walled districts to quit calling what they do “public education” because they don’t welcome everyone, and are functionally more like “private school districts” where the price of a home and the accompanying property taxes buy a seat for one’s child in the local school. We also suggest that residents of such places ask themselves whether it’s fair to criticize urban schools—district, charter, or private—when their own schools refuse to admit children living just a few miles away.
Many are wondering how to advance the upward mobility for low-income children. Of course, school reformers must remain focused on improving urban education (and increasingly rural schooling, as well). The data from Ohio also indicate that interdistrict open enrollment presents another viable option that shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle. But one barrier in Ohio—and we suspect in other places where open enrollment remains a local decision—is that some public school districts remain less than “open to all.” For the refusenik districts such as these, we urge their board members and superintendents—and voters—to reconsider their decision to wall off their public schools. Indeed, in the spirit of President Reagan, we say please tear down those walls.
The year was 1969. Imagine the audacity and irony of an immigrant, one whose family had fled to America in 1923 to escape a totalitarian regime, now testifying to the U.S. Congress his concern that the American Dream was in a state of swift evanescence, especially for the nation’s youngest children:
Mr. Chairman, by profession, I am a behavioral scientist. My field of specialization is human development, in particular the processes through which the newborn infant is gradually transformed into an effective member of society...There is a growing body of scientific evidence that the process of making human beings human is breaking down in American society. The signs of this breakdown are seen in the growing rates of alienation, apathy, rebellion, delinquency, and violence we have observed in youth in this nation in recent decades. And the indications from the evidence are that these trends will be continuing at an increasing rate. The causes of this breakdown are, of course, manifold, but they all converge in their disruptive impact on the one institution that bears primary responsibility for socialization in our society—the American family.
Russian-born Urie Bronfenbrenner was the intellectual giant who shaped much of modern thought on the process through which a baby travels the life course, from infancy, childhood, and adolescence, through the rites of passage that define entry into and through adulthood. While he is most known as one of the founders of HeadStart, Bronfenbrenner's groundbreaking "bioecological" theory established that human development unfolds in a nested set of concentric systems that can either assist humans to flourish or pervert their social behavior.
With the child and his or her unique genetic and personality traits at the center, Bronfenbrenner’s environment includes the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem. Most influential, the microsystem is the immediate environment in which the child lives and maintains deeply personal connections with parents, siblings, and care-giving relatives that typically comprise the nuclear family. The quality and stability of these relationships in the microsystem then determines the child’s level of influence—or vice versa—over all the other layers of the ecosystem.
As education reformers grapple to understand why our country's academic outcomes have been so poor for so long for so many—after spending hundreds of billions of dollars and despite the heartfelt commitment of exceptionally talented people—Bronfenbrenner’s human development framework provides a critical clue as to why some children predictably fail and why others more reliably succeed.
Those of us who have worked for decades in low-income communities know the suffering of kids—and the long-lasting negative effects—if they come of age in a fractured microsystem. The legendary 30 Million-Word Gap research documents the daunting vocabulary deficits that arise when a child grows up in a home that lacks quality verbal interaction and formal language with parents. Moreover, the anti-social behaviors some children exhibit upon entry into pre-kindergarten or kindergarten are likely a direct result of having been raised in a chaotic family environment.
Yet as one who runs a network of public charter schools in low-income communities in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the South Bronx, I know that these tragic stereotypes are not inevitable. There are countless examples of joyful, well-adjusted children in strong families beating a path out of poverty. These children emerge from stable home environments ready to learn, despite negative factors in the outer macrosystem that could derail other children.
The question is what makes the difference.
In “The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation,” sociologist Paul R. Amato captures the decimating impact of what he calls "perhaps the most profound change in the American family over the past four decades." Using data from the National Study of Adolescent Health, the largest and most comprehensive longitudinal survey of adolescents ever undertaken, Amato estimates that more than 1.2 million fewer children would have been suspended from school and nearly 750,000 fewer youngsters would have repeated a grade in 2002, if the share of two parent households in America had held at their levels before the explosion in out-of-wedlock births rose higher in the 1960s. That would have been about a million fewer children in 2002 placed on the school-to-prison pipeline then, and many fewer adults jailed today.
Indeed, when education reformers decry the criminalization of youth, their concern is typically the disproportionate number of suspended Latino and Black students, which is then later reflected in disproportionate rates of incarceration. The usual assertions of causality range from excessively punitive disciplinary policies, to implicit bias of teachers or systemic racial discrimination.
Yet Bronfenbrenner’s framework and Amato’s analysis, taken together, suggest that perhaps there is a force more fundamental to human development than racism or behavioral policy interventions. Because discrepancies in education outcomes like suspensions are normally reported by race, it is easy to assume that they are caused solely or largely by racism. However, while race is a factor, these gaps are likely more related to the gaps in family structure and stability within which a child is raised.
These data help to explain why the juggernaut growth of out-of-wedlock births, especially to young women aged twenty-four and under, has had such devastating consequences for children of all races. To get a sense of the disadvantage the next generation will face, consider that the CDC recently released its nationwide Final Birth Data for 2015.
2015 US Births to Women Aged 10 to 24 (Total and Unmarried)
Births to All Women
Births to Unmarried Women Aged 10–24
Percent of Births to Unmarried Women (Aged 10–24)
It is beyond depressing to forecast the likely consequences for the more than 300,000 white babies born to unmarried women aged ten to twenty-four, as well as the more than ninety percent of the black babies born out of wedlock to women aged ten to twenty-four. The rise in the number of homes without resident, married fathers has created a whole new category of fragile families that is now the primary factor driving the “intergenerational transmission of disadvantage” from parent to child.
To prepare for this new wave of fragile families in NYC, at Public Prep—the five-school charter network of which I am the CEO—we are considering an innovative partnership that would empower parents of our current students to receive a thirty-minute home visit twice per week for forty-six weeks. Over two years, these at-risk parents (typically single mothers, teen parents, or grandparents raising grandchildren), would volunteer to receive a visit from a learning specialist who would help build their ability to improve the early literacy and numeracy skills of their toddlers (sixteen months to three years old). Our hope is that this partnership could be transformative for our families, especially given the opportunity to have much younger siblings of current Public Prep scholars achieve much higher levels of vocabulary acquisition and school readiness before they enter our PrePrep (UPK) program.
While this preventive measure could show some promise to help at-risk parents and their very young children, this cannot be a permanent solution. The education reform community has a crucial role to play in preventing the creation of fragile families in the first place. Yet the explosion in out-of-wedlock births, especially to unmarried women aged ten to twenty-four, is rarely even mentioned by education reformers as a central issue impeding academic outcomes. Nor is addressing it identified as a crucial strategy necessary to transform educational outcomes for children.
Indeed, in January 2017, a who’s who of some two-dozen leaders in education reform gathered to discuss the intersection between race, social justice, and education reform at a roundtable hosted by American Enterprise Institute and New Schools Venture Fund. The summary statement of the discussion is a must-read for multiple reasons, the top line of which is that it highlights the emerging factions within the education reform community and the risk that today’s shaky coalitions will weaken further due to disagreements on the role education reform should play to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
For me, what’s most mind-boggling about the statement and the related panel discussions are that they make zero mention of the skyrocketing growth in non-marital births across races, and the terrible impact of that growth on educational outcomes. We know better. Indeed, the magnitude of the issue and the fact that it cuts across race could be an important basis on which education reformers might make common cause.
This is especially important now because the social and civic institutions through which children historically learned about the optimal timing of family formation and the rites of passage into adulthood have themselves weakened.
Reductions in religiosity, the declining trust of political leaders, and an increasingly nihilistic popular culture—all combine to create cracks in every layer of Bronfenbrener’s ecosystem. The education reform community has a unique responsibility as keepers of perhaps the remaining civic institution—public schools—that interacts with almost every child for prolonged periods almost every week (or at least the thirty-six weeks of the school year). That is why two-generation solutions such as a parent-home-visiting program or the Success Sequence should be explored as part of a core curriculum, given the data that show it’s nearly impossible for a poor person to remain poor if that person makes a series of life choices—finish high school, secure a job, and get married before having a child, in that order.
Indeed, if the education reform community does not explicitly address the issue of proper family formation, we will repeat the horror movie now playing in Chicago, where the erosion of stable families is driving many who care deeply about children to try to devise late-intervention solutions.
Consider two different approaches being tried in Chicago.
In the first, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is seeking to address the grisly reality that someone has been shot every other hour in the Windy City over the past year, pushing murders to their highest point in nearly two decades. During the time Duncan was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, from 2001 to 2008, on average, a student was shot to death off campus every two weeks. Experiencing this carnage no doubt indelibly influenced Duncan, who recently said: “If we want to stop the shooting, we have to work with the shooters.” As a result, Duncan has founded Chicago CRED (Create Real Economic Destiny), a non-profit that “operates on a core belief that jobs can stop bullets.” The goal is to provide employment to men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four years old, many of whom lack high school diplomas and are victims and perpetrators of gun violence.
At the other end of the spectrum is the second approach, Chicago police’s deployment of technology that, mimicking the “pre-cogs” in the science fiction film Minority Report, is designed to predict and stop murders before they occur. Called “The Strategic Subject List,” it employs a computer algorithm utilizing indicators—such as whether a person has been arrested for a violent crime or drugs, is a gang member, or was a victim of assault or shooting—to determine whether individual Chicagoans are likely to shoot someone or be shot. Despite the worrying creation of secret watch lists, black Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson recently defended the monitoring technology, stating that “we’ve gotten very good at predicting who will be the perpetrators or victims of gun violence.”
But these shooters, AKA human beings, weren't born with guns in their hands, or with the predisposition to kill other human beings. The question is whether there are earlier, leading indicators that would prevent all of this educational failure and bloodshed in the first place. Let’s look back seventeen years ago in Chicago, when many of the young people caught up in today’s violence, were born.
According to the epidemiology unit of the Cook County Department of Public Health, which emcompasses Chicago, 62 percent of the more than 8,700 babies born to women of all races aged twenty-four and under in 2000 were born out of wedlock. Of the more than 2,500 black babies born in 2000 to women aged twenty-four and under, a staggering 89 percent were to mothers who were unmarried at time of delivery. Even more disturbing, 42 percent of black mothers aged twenty-four and under fell in the official category of “missing information for father,” far higher than any other racial category. Given the overwhelming data detailing the adverse impact on boys and girls growing up without a father, this could help explain the rise in out-of-wedlock births and the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago.
It does not have to be this way.
Nearly fifty years ago, like James Coleman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan before him, Urie Bronfenbrenner sounded the alarm that our society’s central organizing unit—the stable two-parent family—was in alarming decline. Left uninterrupted, the pathologies created by that disintegration, already so evident in certain communities in the late 1960s, would accelerate and become their own independent destructive force across all communities.
Today, we live amid irrefutable evidence that children raised in stable, married, two-parent households (regardless of gender) have, on average, far superior life outcomes, not only in education but also in virtually every other category of healthy human development.
Educators cannot control the structure of the families into which our current students are born. But we can influence how our students think about the family structures they form and the series of life choices that will likely lead to their life success and that of their children. Perhaps then we can achieve the intergenerational transmission of advantage. To make human beings human, we must accept the responsibility to empower our young scholars with this information.
If not us, who will?
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
At a House budget hearing two weeks ago, Representative Katherine Clark (D-MA) pushed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to comment on a Christian school’s policy toward LGBT students and families. As described by the Boston Globe:
Clark waited patiently for her turn to question DeVos in the packed hearing room, and when the opportunity came, she asked about the private Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington, Ind.
The school, Clark said, receives more than $665,000 in state vouchers, while noting in its handbook that it may deny admission to students from families where homosexual or “alternate gender identity” is practiced.
Leaning into her microphone and shaking her fist, Clark asked: If Indiana seeks federal funding as part of the president’s proposed voucher program, “will you stand up that this school be open to all students?”
DeVos tried to pivot, and then, after repeated questions from Clark, said that the decision would be left up to states, leading papers nationwide to run headlines such as “Betsy DeVos Refuses to Rule Out Giving Funds to Schools That Discriminate.”
[RELATED CONTENT: “Civil rights and private schools: An explainer,” by Michael J. Petrilli.]
We should expect to hear more of this line of questioning tomorrow when DeVos appears before Senate appropriators.
So how should Secretary DeVos respond—especially if she wants to appeal to people who support both school choice and gay rights, like me? She might try this:
Thank you, Senator, for that very important question. As you know, this is a tough issue, as there are two fundamental principles in tension with one another. The first entails the rights and dignity of LGBT students, and the children of LGBT parents. As I have said before, I am very concerned about the physical and emotional well-being of such children and youth, who have long been subject to bullying and worse. And speaking personally, I find it reprehensible, and inconsistent with my own reading of Christian values, for a school to make students feel unwelcome because of their sexual orientation or because their parents are in a same-sex relationship. Thankfully, I believe the school you referenced is more the exception than the rule when it comes to private and religious schools.
But another important principle is also at stake here, and that is the principle of religious liberty, enshrined in the First Amendment as the right to free exercise of religion. This principle, too, commands our respect. Religious schools, like religious communities, are built around a set of beliefs and a moral code. So we wisely give religious organizations the space to reach their own conclusions about sensitive issues like human sexuality. That is why several federal civil rights laws, including Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act, provide accommodations for religious organizations.
Furthermore, there is great value to all Americans in preserving and promoting a pluralistic school system that allows schools to come in all shapes, sizes, and moral codes, and that empowers families to find schools that match their own values and educational priorities. It’s important, too, to note that the multi-decade track record of religious schools demonstrates their capacity to provide life-saving opportunities for disadvantaged children. Not allowing such schools to serve students with publicly-funded scholarships amounts to taking choices away from parents.
School choice programs are hardly the only places where LGBT rights and religious rights come into tension. In fact, this happens in higher education, too. Under the Obama Administration, religious colleges requested, and received, approval to exclude LGBT students from their campuses. Yet students at these colleges continue to receive Pell Grants, and the institutions participate in other federal programs.
Many legal scholars believe that the previous administration had no statutory grounds by which to extend legal protections to gay, bisexual, and lesbian students because Congress has never enacted anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBT individuals. Extending civil rights protections to the LGBT community is certainly something that you in the legislative branch should consider. And I promise to enforce any civil rights laws that you enact.
A congressional debate over this issue would be healthy for America. We could address squarely the question of how to protect LGBT individuals, including children, while also respecting the rights of religious organizations. How this should work for schools could be part of the discussion. We already give religious schools leeway when it comes to hiring. Just as we wouldn’t expect a Montessori school to hire teachers who aren’t trained in, or committed to, the Montessori method, we wouldn’t expect a Christian school to hire teachers who are not committed to the Christian faith. The same holds true for Jewish schools, Muslim schools, and those of other faiths. For similar reasons, we may want to give such schools a wide berth when it comes to student admissions, so that they can maintain a community that is broadly committed to their religious beliefs.
But that is a question for you in the legislative branch to decide. My job is to enforce the laws, not make them. Until you act on this question, it is up to the states to determine how best to weigh the competing principles that are at play.
Maybe a statement of that sort would lead to better headlines than the ones from a few weeks ago; maybe not. But such an answer would provide some balance and perspective to a debate that is surely going to remain a central battleground in the war over vouchers.
On this week's podcast, special guest Chris Minnich, Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss the seventeen ESSA plans that have been submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, and what the other thirty-four states can learn from them. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines Kentucky’s promising approach to school improvement.
Amber’s Research Minute
Sade Bonilla and Thomas Dee, “Sade Bonilla and Thomas Dee, "The Effects of School Reform Under NCLB Waivers: Evidence from Focus Schools in Kentucky," Center for Education Policy and Analysis (June 2017).
If you had it to do it all over again, would you still pursue the same level of education? Would you attend the same college or university? The same area of study?
A new survey from the Strada Education Network and Gallup finds a majority of Americans who attended college say they received a quality education. But, given the chance, about half of us would change at least one of our Big Three decisions, most commonly the course of study: 36 percent of us would choose a different major if we could. I have college regrets too, mostly that I was too embarrassed to ask Sue Castrigno for a second date. There was also that Friday night at Buckland’s, which mercifully pre-dated cellphone cameras and the advent of social media. But I digress.
Strada’s mission is to “help students build a more purposeful pathway through college or other postsecondary education.” Thus it is unsurprising that the report speculates that our wish to have made different choices “may be a function of having made decisions without complete information,” such as future employment opportunities, earning potential, or the long-term effect of student debt. “In short,” the paper concludes, “education consumers’ regret about their previous decisions could be read as a signal to improve the resources available to inform future education decisions.” However one could be as easily struck by how few Americans regret their educational decisions: nearly three-in-four of us would attend the same institution; only 12 percent would pursue a different degree. These are remarkable validations.
If there’s anyone who should regret their educational decisions, perhaps it should be those of us in Wonk World who have pushed college-for-all as the endgame. Turns out that students who complete a vocational, trade, or technical program after high school are more positive about their education decisions than those with associate or bachelor’s degree. This recalls President Obama’s remark, which he later felt compelled to apologize for, that “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree." (He was right.) On the other end of the spectrum, those with postgraduate degrees are the least likely to say they would make different education decisions. Neither of these findings is surprising: One doesn’t pursue a vocational or professional track without some sense that this is what you want to do for the next few decades.
The most significant finding may be that those most likely to wish they’d changed their educational decisions are those with some college but no degree. This suggests that the greatest problem may be turning loose boxcar numbers of young people on college campuses who are unprepared—academically, financially, or personally—to matriculate successfully and complete their degrees. But this finding is tempered too: “Even those adults who started a degree but did not finish it consider their experiences to have been high quality: 70 percent of adults with some college but no degree and 88 percent of adults who started a postgraduate degree highly rate the education they received.”
The survey finds those who earned either an associate or bachelor’s degree in a STEM field are the least likely to report they would choose another major; those who studied liberal arts are the most likely to wish they had chosen a different field. It’s too bad that we don’t have data about specific majors, though. If art history majors are most likely to spend their days saying, “Do you want fries with that?,” college-bound students—or at least their tuition-paying parents—might like to know. Perhaps in their next survey.
SOURCE: “On Second Thought: U.S. Adults Reflect on Their Education Decisions,” Gallup & Strada Education Network (June 2017).
Inequity in the City—the work of veteran authors of previous charter-school funding studies, including Inequity’s Next Frontier, Inequity Persists, and Inequity Expands—differs slightly from its predecessors because of its metropolitan focus. Its core finding is familiar, however: public charter schools face serious and persistent funding gaps compared to their district counterparts. (Will we ever get to read “Inequity Shrinks” or “Inequity Disappears”? One can dream. But some states such as Colorado are at least making progress.)
The analysts focused on 15 cities: Atlanta, Boston, Camden, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Memphis, New Orleans, New York City, Oakland, San Antonio, Tulsa, and Washington, D.C. These locales were selected for their high concentration of charters or their “potential for growth.” Data come from fiscal year 2014.
They examined revenue differences in these places between the charter and district schools sectors, including all sources of funding—local, state, federal, and nonpublic. In eight of the cities, the authors conducted longitudinal analyses. They also tested to see whether differences in the enrollment rates of students with special learning needs (defined broadly to include students who are low-income, English language learners, or with disabilities) might explain funding differences.
There are several notable findings:
- Urban charter schools continue to receive significantly less money than traditional district schools. The average funding gap in the cities studied was 29 percent, or a $5,721-per-pupil disadvantage.
- There is considerable city-by-city variation. Gaps faced by charters range from $225 per pupil (Houston) to nearly $15,000 (Camden).
- All but three cities earned D or F grades on funding disparity. (A city earned an A if per-pupil charter funding was within 5 percent of that received by district schools—in either direction; a B if between 5-10 percent, even in instances where charters received more; C if the gap was 10-15 percent; D if 15-25 percent, and F if 25+ percent.) Houston, home to many top-notch charter networks, earned the only A. The authors didn’t ask whether Houston charters perform well because they’re better resourced or better resourced because their strong performance made it more politically viable to provide equitable support. For anyone interested in achieving long-term funding equity for charters, however, those are important questions.
- Only in Shelby County, TN (Memphis) does the charter sector generate more revenue than nearby district schools, thanks to private philanthropy. Across the sample, however, philanthropy failed to fill the gap. In just a few places (including Atlanta, DC, and Boston) did charters receive over $1,000 per child in private funding. In several others (Little Rock, San Antonio, Denver, and New York City), philanthropic funding was actually higher (per pupil) for district schools.
- Differences in the rates of special-need students could only explain the funding gap in Atlanta and Boston, in both of which the charter sector enrolled proportionately few low-income children.
- The lack of local dollars for charters is primarily responsible for the gap. Eight of the cities’ charter sectors received no local funds (as is the case for almost every Ohio charter).
- The funding gap has widened in more cities than it has narrowed. Atlanta, Houston, and Boston experienced slight gap reduction since 2005, while Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Denver, New York City, and Washington D.C. saw their gaps widen.
The report also takes a deep dive into each revenue source (federal, state, local, nonpublic) and sheds light on the mechanics of how charters are (and aren’t) funded from each. But of course the overall amount is what matters most. In half of the cities, charters had higher state funding than district schools, but that edge turns into a net shortfall, given the dearth of local tax revenues for charters. (In Ohio, charter opponents employ the fact that charters get more state dollars than many district schools and overlook the truth that their overall revenues are far less.)
The city-to-city funding disparities are striking. DC district schools net $35,000 per pupil, versus $10,000 in Shelby County. Camden charters experience the greatest inequity in the sample (a gap of 45 percent and nearly $15,000 less per pupil) but district revenue per pupil is astronomical (almost $33,000). In fact, the cities that received the higher grades all had relatively low per-pupil amounts, meaning they were somewhat easier to match. But funding gaps between the two sectors remain a very big concern. A charter that receives far less per pupil than its district peer, even if its overall total might be decent, still struggle to keep teacher salaries competitive.
Finally the report reviews, albeit briefly, national evidence showing that charter schools have positive effects on student achievement. The authors are well aware that quantifying funding gaps is not just an exercise in discussing fairness. On average, across the nation and in several of the cities studied in this report, charters dramatically outperform their district counterparts despite these funding gaps. As the authors rightfully ask, “Might charters produce even better results if they were better resourced?” It’s a question about return on investment that’s worth taking very seriously.
SOURCE: Patrick J. Wolf, Larry D. Maloney, Jay F. May, Corey A. DeAngelis, “Charter School Funding: Inequity in the City,” University of Arkansas (May 2017).