May 10, 2017
A new study says charter schools in Memphis are bucking a national trend in per-pupil funding, thanks mostly to philanthropic support that has them eclipsing total revenue received by traditional schools.
A University of Arkansas report released Wednesday found that charter schools in the 15 cities studied received significantly less public funding per pupil than did traditional schools. But Memphis was unique because private sources filled the gap — and then some, resulting in 9 percent more funding per student than for the city’s traditional counterparts.
“(Memphis charters have) been great at raising funds. They’ve basically fundraised themselves to parity,” said Patrick Wolf, a researcher at the university’s School Choice Demonstration Project.
The report was funded by the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat also receives funding from the Walton Foundation. You can see our full list of supporters here.)
The report is based on charter school audits from 2014 and says that private funding accounted for $1,446 per student, or nearly 14 percent of the sector’s revenue in Memphis. Without it, the funding level would be 3 percent less than received by the city’s traditional schools, according to the researchers, whose methodology has been questioned in previous years.
Charter school advocates long have complained about a gap in public funding between charter and traditional schools. And last summer, a state comptroller’s report said it’s unclear if Tennessee charter schools are receiving the right amount of money from their local districts.
In Memphis, which has most of the state’s charter schools, the issue has come under a microscope, especially related to the cost of facilities. In response to that concern, Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget for next year invests $6 million annually for charter facilities statewide.
Charter schools were established in 1991 in Minnesota as a publicly funded tool for innovation. In exchange for the promise of better academic outcomes, they receive greater autonomy. Undergirding the movement is also the expectation of more financial efficiency.
That makes the Memphis finding unusual. The researchers say the city’s charter school leaders have gotten better at raising money since the project’s last report that examined 2011 revenues. Still, Wolf said it would be better if they didn’t have to.
“Is that sustainable in the long run?” he asked. If public funding for charters matched traditional schools, charter schools could “focus more of the administrative activity on education rather than funding.”
Memphis charter leaders said the report paints a rosier picture than the reality for charter operators who have been on their own to pay for facilities. That issue makes for an apples-and-oranges comparison, said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center.
“(Shelby County Schools) money goes straight to academics. The charters have to split up that amount to go to capital and instruction,” said Mercer, who also co-chairs a committee of district and charter leaders working to sort out issues like these. “If I have $9,000 splitting it two ways and you have $9,000 split one way, you have more money.”
The University of Arkansas group’s previous studies on charter funding inequities have come under fire for methodology used by its researchers. The Tennessee Department of Education has instructed Shelby County Schools to use a different enrollment year than used by the researchers to calculate how much money to allocate to charter schools, which could result in lower amounts of funding than cited in Wednesday’s report.