Maryland's highest court sent a shock wave through the public-education establishment last month by ruling that charter schools are entitled to receive as much funding per pupil as regular public schools.
What a concept - the judges said bureaucrats cannot routinely shortchange public schools of choice just because they offer out-of-the-ordinary curricula and families flock to them.
Unfortunately, the immediate impact of the Maryland Court of Appeals' decision may be limited. The court's ruling turned on the phrasing of current state law rather than constitutional principle.
Legislative enemies of public schools of choice already are lining up to rewrite the law in the 2008 session to empower bureaucrats once again to deny charter schools equal funding. Of course, it is at least possible that equity will prevail.
Either way, the 5-2 ruling has exposed the intentional underfunding of public charter schools. It could inspire litigation in other states to challenge these gross disparities on constitutional grounds.
An August 2005 analysis of school finance in 17 states conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham and Progress Analytics institutes found that funding for charters fell below that for regular district schools by 21.7 percent, on average. (Data were for 2002-2003.)
Given that many charter schools serve low-income and minority kids in large cities, the disparities look even worse when broken down by cities.
Atlanta, for instance, shoveled $12,766 per pupil into its regular public schools but funded charter schools at $7,949 - a gap of almost 38 percent. Albany, N.Y., funded its regular public schools to the tune of $15,226 per pupil, but gave the charter schools 33 percent less than that. Maryland and Baltimore were not included in the Fordham study; The Sun reported July 31 that the Baltimore school budget last year "contained the equivalent of more than $13,000 per child for all of its public schools, though not all of that was spent on children. The city's charter schools received $5,859 per child in cash and the rest in services."
The figures explain the whining heard ever more loudly from central school offices as charter schools have multiplied over the past 15 years, from one in Minnesota to 4,000 in 40 states. The disparity data show the education establishment has been doing its level best to keep as much of "its" money as possible.
That raises an interesting question: To whom does the public tax money appropriated for public education rightfully belong? If charter schools are bearing some of the enrollment load, why is that a drain? Charter schools are public schools too. They cannot charge tuition. They must be nonsectarian. They have to abide by public health and safety standards. They operate under public oversight.
The only difference from other public schools is that charters can operate in unconventional ways. That's what makes them effective.
Committees of concerned citizens and entrepreneurial educators win charters from local or state boards, enabling them to run such schools under renewable performance contracts that exempt them from some of the most onerous public-school regulations.
If they don't deliver results, they can lose their charter when they come up for review, and be forced to close. That is a level of accountability we don't have when dealing with regular public schools.
The shortchanging of charter schools is another sign that the guardians of education orthodoxy - the bureaucrats and teachers unions and their political friends - relentlessly make it as hard as possible for charter schools to succeed. Other signs of this hostility include irrational caps on how many charters may open and how many children may enroll, and the use of teacher certification as a weapon.
In many urban districts with woefully underperforming public schools, charter schools are the most viable alternative for families. A recent survey by scholars from Harvard University and Stanford's Hoover Institution indicated a majority of Americans understand this. Three-fourths of the respondents said charter schools should receive at least as much public funding per child as conventional public schools.
It's simple: The money should follow the child.
Robert Holland is a senior fellow for education policy with the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org