Charter funding formula flawed

The Baltimore Sun

By Alison Perkins-Cohen
Published May 23, 2005

THE MARYLAND State Board of Education ruled this month that the level of public education dollars due charter schools in Baltimore City is nearly $11,000 per pupil, far more money than what is earmarked for each regular school student.

Advocates of public school education might applaud the ruling because it indicates the level of funding that the state believes public school students are entitled to. But it also means that charter schools will be funded at significantly higher levels than traditional public schools. So every public school in Baltimore should receive at least $11,000 for every student it serves - not just charters.

As the operator of three public schools converting to charters, we discovered this funding discrepancy while calculating the revenue our schools would receive using the new charter school formula. The combination of cash and services our students would receive next year if we operate as a traditional public school would be only $6,900 per pupil. According to the state ruling, converting to charters would mean nearly $2 million in additional resources for each of our schools.

The annual impact of providing this level of funding to all public schools would be incredible if determined on a school-by-school basis. Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, for example, would receive more than $5 million in additional resources next year if it converted to charter status and the per pupil funding were elevated to $11,000. City College would receive nearly $6 million in additional resources.

In reality, the cost to the system to implement the state board's decision for charter schools would have a significant negative impact on all traditional public schools. It would rob funds for other public schools by about $164 per pupil - reducing Roland Park and City College's budgets next year by more than $200,000.

There are about 89,500 pupils in the Baltimore City Public School System, with 3,500 of them set to enter 12 charter schools in the fall.

The method used by the state to calculate the "commensurate" per pupil funding level for charters is fundamentally flawed. The method takes Baltimore's total federal, state and local education dollars - minus a couple of small funding items the state considered unrelated - and divides that by the number of public school students in Baltimore.

The state erroneously included funding for a number of city school system expenses that do not directly serve students, such as money earmarked for reducing the system's debt and a reserve fund that the city is legally mandated to maintain.

The state also assumes it is appropriate to use a flat per-pupil level for all students. In reality, all students are not the same in terms of the services they need or the funding they receive. In fact, federal law calls for special-education and low-income students to be funded at a higher level than regular public school students. Despite this, the state calculation included federal funds reserved for low-income students. These funds should only go to schools serving a population that is significantly low-income.

Also, the state calculation includes more than $250 million intended to serve special education students. These funds serve a wide range of students, from those who are mainstreamed into regular education classrooms to the severely disabled. The cost of providing services for these students varies widely, from an average of $17,000 per pupil for certain types of students to nearly $40,000 for severely disabled students.

These funds cannot be spread evenly across the system, as the state ruling implies, because the proportion of special education students served by any one school and the levels of disability served vary significantly. Instead, these funds must follow the student - as they do for traditional public schools.

Equal funding for charter schools is essential, not only for the health of the entire public school system but also for the long-term health of the charter school movement. One of the main reasons for starting charter schools is that traditional public schools are supposed to learn from innovative practices used in charter schools. If those innovative practices cost substantially more to provide, the lessons are useless.

Funding charter schools at such a high level also would undermine public support for charters and make it unlikely that any new ones would be approved in the city or elsewhere in Maryland.

This decision cannot be allowed to stand, and we support Baltimore's decision to fight the ruling. But the city shouldn't fight alone. Parents of students in all public schools, charter and traditional, should stand together in legal action to reject the state's formula of inequitable and inadequate funding. The students of Maryland deserve better.

Alison Perkins-Cohen is executive director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project Inc., which operates three public schools that are converting to charter schools.