Budget cuts muffle charter growthSuccessful schools like Aspire feel the pinch
California’s low funding of public schools is curbing the expansion of charter schools and making them more dependent on philanthropy to support their operations and their plans for growth. Because roughly one out of six charter schools is located here, California’s low education funding is distorting the national perspective of charter schools’ financial development.
That’s the conclusion of Location, Location, Location: How would a high-performing charter school network fare in different states? – a report that looks at how much Oakland-based Aspire Public Schools hypothetically would be funded were its schools located in 23 other states with charter schools. Financially, Aspire would have been about on par in two states and much better off in 18 states. In those states, it would have had an average operating surplus of $1,410 per student or 12.2 percent – 23 times the frugal margin of $60 per student or 0.6 percent on which Aspire operates 30 schools in California.
Ball State University estimates that charter schools nationwide receive 19 percent less funding than traditional public schools. In California, the disparity is less than in most states: 9.2 percent. But Aspire would still be better off elsewhere, because California’s school funding is 20 percent below the national average and among the seven lowest funded states. The report says that if Aspire were in Massachusetts or New York, it would have received $3,000 more per student for similar operations.
The report, co-authored by Chris Lozier, COO of a Chicago charter school network, and Andrew Rotherham, a well-known blogger and co-founder of the consulting group Bellwether Educational Partners, was funded by the Gates Foundation. (Don Shalvey, a Gates Foundation VP, is also chairman of Aspire’s board of directors.) It was released on the eve of Aspire’s scheduled hearing before the State Board of Education on its application to broaden its authority to open charter schools statewide. I hear that the hearing may be postponed for a few months.
Nationally recognized non-profit Aspire operates 30 charter schools for 10,000 students in low-income, minority neighborhoods in the Bay Area, Sacramento, Stockton, and Los Angeles. Its overall API score of 824 makes it the highest-performing school system with more than 20 schools serving high-poverty students. It reports that 95 percent of its high school graduates were accepted to a four-year college.
Aspire typifies the plight of most high-performing charter networks. It relies on philanthropy for 7 percent of its revenue, to help operate the central office and support staff for the schools, said Stephanie Wilson, Aspire’s chief of staff. It’s otherwise dependent on the state’s per-pupil allotment. Out of that total, 13 percent goes to renting facilities – a burden district schools don’t face. Although schools are theoretically entitled to school facilities for free under Proposition 39, Aspire hasn’t invoked the law because of its flaws, such as a district’s ability to force charter schools to move locations every year. Charter schools also face a new burden: high interest charges on loans they must take because the state is deferring on payments by months.
Although it is moving ahead with its statewide charter petition, Wilson said that Aspire has put off its immediate plan to open three to five schools per year because of the state’s cuts in education funding. “We will grow when it does not negatively impact our existing schools and students,” she said.
Some may make the case that Aspire’s academic success is evidence that California’s schools don’t need more money. Wilson, Rotherham and other charter advocates don’t buy that argument.
“We have it tough in California; we are underfunding education, and charters in particular,” Wilson said. “It would take only small changes to level the playing field so that students aren’t shortchanged by choosing the schools they go to.”
Aspire already has longer school days and lower student-to-teacher ratios than most traditional schools. Wilson said that, with more state funding, Aspire would first expand tutoring and after-school programs, provide guidance and help for Aspire alumni in college, and add more support staff for teachers.
As for charter school growth, the report concludes: “Until states overhaul both their education and charter school finance policies, no one should be surprised that, absent help from philanthropy, many schools, even the very best ones, will operate on tight margins and struggle with growth and scale.”
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