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A Flap Over Charter School Funding

Public charter school advocates are upset about a proposed change in the District's funding formula -- one that D.C. officials say is intended to make the schools more accountable for their facilities costs.

Like public schools, public charter schools are funded according to a per-pupil allocation. The basic amount--which is adjusted for grade level and special needs--would be $8,945 under Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's proposed 2010 budget.

Unlike public schools, charters enter the world without buildings waiting for them. So they receive an additional per-pupil allowance to help pay rent, mortgage or other facilities-related costs. This year's per rate is $3,109.

But controls on how charters actually use the money have been loose, District officials say, and some schools have been spending the facilities funds to defray other costs, such as payroll. Fenty wants to scrap the formula and cut the amount of facilities money available by $24 million (to $66 million). Charter schools would be required to submit evidence of allowable costs to the D.C. Public Charter School Board in order to receive payment.

Robert Cane, executive director of FOCUS (Friends of Choice in Urban Schools), an advocacy group, said the change would make it difficult for charter schools to accumulate the kind of capital reserves needed to secure bank financing to buy a building. He said he finds Fenty's decision highly inequitable, given the growth in charter school enrollment this year (up 17 percent). He also said it is part of a pattern of hostile decisions by the mayor, which include limits on the number of surplus public school buildings being made available to charters looking for new quarters.

"I would say that the Fenty administration appears to be upset because not every charter school is spending every dollar on facilities," he said. "So now what they're saying is we're not going to let you spend any of those dollars on academics." It creates an incentive, he said "to be just as profligate in spending as DCPS is."

The formula flap is expected to surface today when the D.C. Council holds its annual budget hearing on charter school funding.

By Bill Turque  |  April 2, 2009; 6:55 AM ET
Categories:  Bill Turque , Education  
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Comments

I'm confused. I figured Fenty wanted the public schools to fail and charters to grow, and that he was pleased that the student count in dcps was down.

Now it looks like he wants the charters to fail too.

Could someone explain?

Posted by: efavorite | April 2, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

I think to some extent Fenty is trying to do anything he can to save money. I do think there is a problem with the per student allotment of these funds. The conversion of a bunch of Catholic schools to charters dumped a big expense on the city, and the diocese has been quite public that the huge rents they are getting is a net source of income for them.

Some charters have horrible facilities and are stealing from their non-facility funds to make rent. Others have free or cheap locations that effectively give them lots of extra money for their education programs. The allotment to charters is based on them getting the same amount per student as public schools do for facilities. The big problem with that math is that the number for DCPS is hugely inflated by horrible cost controls, and decades of deferred maintenance.

I would agree that it is crazy for the mayor to not give charters the right to rent the closed schools as a first option. The Mayor is pushing huge developments all over the city that will eventually bring more people to the city. Those properties will never be replaced, at an affordable level. If we ever get some one who can improve the school system so that parents come back we will want those buildings. Renting to these buildings to charters would keep them in the city inventory; give the charters buildings that better serve as schools than warehouses, condos or office buildings; provide the city income instead of the charter facility allotment going to private entities. If the charters don't spend their full allotment on a facility they should be allowed to put that money into a "city account" that is available in the future should they be in a position to purchase a space.

Some of these charters are run by national organization. If these monies go into some account external to the city, if the local charter fails that money stays with the national entity and is never spent on DC children.

Posted by: qaz2 | April 2, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

qaz2 summed it up pretty well. For some charters, the facilities allowance is an unsightly windfall. The converted Catholic schools are the best example.

If the city would be a little more liberal in making the surplussed schools buildings available to charters, exerting more control over how the facilities money is spent would be appropriate.

Posted by: hoos3014 | April 2, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

The central issue is that all our children should have an opportunity to have an equal education. Underfunding charter schools, which serve more than a third of our students and produce 13% higher test scores, is shooting ourselves in the foot. And worse, the children in their feet.

The most equitable and financially sound practice would be to fund all public schools equally and use all this energy on ensuring that all schools are providing quality education. This a responsibility that the Mayor's office and the Council have failed to assume for decades. It's easier to dicker with numbers.

To be quibbling about whether a school bought a fan and called it facilities or is saving the facilities allowance for a real gym, is rather short sighted and not something the Mayor or the Council should be wasting its time on.

The charter schools are already functioning on considerably fewer square feet per student than other public schools. At the same time that the Mayor's office wants to cut their facilities funding, it refuses to allow them to use empty public school buildings. The logic here is not the best.

Charter schools are one of the best financial investments the city can make, and one that benefits every citizen in Washington. Good schools produce good citizens -- fewer criminals, fewer homeless people, fewer drug abusers, fewer unemployable people. Where else are you going to get that? By penalizing 1/3 of your students?

Posted by: sharon14 | April 2, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Sharon14 - do you work in public relations for Charter schools?

that's what your post sounds like. Where do you get your claim of 13% higher "test scores?"

Also good schools of any type can't take all the credit or be given all the responsibility for producing "good citizens -- fewer criminals, fewer homeless people, fewer drug abusers, fewer unemployable people." Families and the community have a big share of responsibility too.

Posted by: efavorite | April 2, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

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