School officials, charter leaders at odds over funding disparity

Charter schools to receive more per-pupil funding than traditional schools in budget set to be adopted Tuesday

  • From left: Cecilia Dibble; Scarlett Landers; and Micayla Unoko read in Tracy Pendred's third grade class at City Neighbors Charter School. Charter schools will receive $13 million more in funding this year. This increase gives these schools more than $4,000 per-pupil than traditional schools receive in funding.
From left: Cecilia Dibble; Scarlett Landers; and Micayla Unoko… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
May 22, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore school system officials and charter leaders are at odds over how to address an anticipated funding disparity — an issue that led to a contentious court battle five years ago.

In the district's proposed fiscal year 2012 budget — expected to be adopted by the school board Tuesday — charters will receive $9,300 per pupil, compared with the traditional schools' $5,000 per pupil. The district's allotment to charter schools will also increase by $13 million over last year because of a surge in enrollment numbers.

City schools CEO Andrés Alonso said traditional schools are shouldering the burden of the district's flat revenues and increasing cost, so he wants to revisit the charter funding formula set in 2005 — which gives charters cash in lieu of services.

Alonso said "the squeeze is on," as the district's allocation to charters passed the $100 million mark in the proposed $1.3 billion budget. Baltimore has the bulk of the state's charter schools, with 32 operating in the district next year.

"The present solution cannot hold," Alonso said. "Charters have been extraordinary partners in the reforms, so I am confident we will creatively find a new solution together.

"That might mean that the way we do business has to radically change, not necessarily that charters need to get less money. We haven't figured out how to do it. We need to do it together."

Charter school leaders say that the perceived disparity in funding is misleading.

"If there's any disparity, it's in the power, and if anything, we want traditional schools to have the power that we have because we see the impact that it can have," said Bobbi Macdonald, board member of the Coalition of Baltimore Charter Schools and executive director of City Neighbors charter schools.

"The charters are given more cash, but we have more responsibilities, we have growing populations and we get results. Instead of saying charters need to get less, we need to say how all schools can get more."

Under the school system's Fair Student Funding model, implemented during Alonso's tenure, schools receive per-pupil funding based on the number of students they enroll.

For the past three years, the model has given principals of traditional schools the autonomy to staff their schools and provide resources for their students, using "flexible cash" built into the per-pupil allotment. The amount of flexible cash in next year's budget will decrease by 4 percent because of expenses such as salaries and fringe benefits.

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently under contracts with the city school board but receive public funding based on enrollment under the Fair Student Funding model.

Unlike public schools, charters shoulder the costs of their principals, facilities and any services they don't receive from the district's central office with their per-pupil funding. But charters also receive philanthropic funds that can raise their per-pupil expenditures, the same way traditional schools can receive grants.

Macdonald noted that when services, debt service and facility costs are deducted from charters' per-pupil formula, the gap is not that great. She said charters are also feeling the economic crunch.

Alonso, who has opened charter schools that are contractually obligated to grow each year, said, "When I started, [the budget impact] wasn't that relevant because the charter population was small."

According to data provided by the district, the majority of the schools that will see the largest budget increases next year are charters; four out of five schools that received the largest decreases are traditional schools. The increases and decreases were primarily due to enrollment changes.

Impact on achievement

School leaders and education advocates said that the best funding formula is one that will ensure equal opportunity for all students.

"Schools with children of similar needs should be funded at similar levels, to ensure equity and apples-to-apples comparisons regarding student achievement," said Bebe Verdery, director of the Education Reform Project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

"The services and funding provided to traditional, charter and transformation schools ought to be much more clearly presented so that we can be sure that all the students are getting their fair share."

Arundel Elementary/Middle School, a school enrolling predominantly poor students in Cherry Hill, has met every state academic and attendance goal for the past two years after a long history of failure. But it is losing $1,000 per student, or more than $348,000 total.

"That cut will cause a lot of pain, especially in a school that has turned around, where enrollment is rising and parents are happy," said Matt Carpenter, Arundel's principal. "We don't want to lose our momentum."

Carpenter said he learned that he lost about $800 more per pupil than a charter school counterpart.

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