Charter school funding changes budget landscape

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In the past, charter school parents were a regular presence at CPS board meetings, carrying signs demanding that their schools get equal funding. But lately, these parents are nowhere to be found.

One reason for their absence is likely the negative publicity generated by the UNO Charter School Network, which sent busloads of parents but is now under federal investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. But another probable reason is the fact that charter school funding has increased substantially over the past three years.  Even leaders in the charter sector acknowledge that Chicago’s funding is close to equitable with the money given to district-run schools.

“We are substantially better off on the operating side,” says Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Broy and others, however, still believe that money for charter facilities remains inequitable.

Yet charter funding remains hotly contested, with advocates for neighborhood schools pointing out that district schools lost $67 million in budget cuts—a figure that is close to the $62 million increase for charter schools, which are expected to get thousands more students. On Wednesday, the School Board is expected to approve a $5.7 billion budget.  

While the Chicago Teachers Union and the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand angrily accuse CPS of disinvesting in traditional schools, charter supporters insist they get no funding advantage and have gotten far less money in the past.  

“In the last two years, we have taken great steps forward,” says Beth Purvis, chief executive officer of Chicago International Charter School.

More or less?

Since fiscal year 2012, per-pupil funding for elementary charter schools has jumped 22 percent, to $7,166 from $5,873; and has risen 8 percent for charter high schools, to $8,194 from $7,188.

This year, all schools—traditional and charter alike—will receive $250 more per student. (Traditional schools say their budgets have been cut, though CPS maintains that custodians and building engineers now work under a centralized system and are no longer part of school-level budgets.) In addition to that $250, charter schools will receive another $250 for each elementary student and $50 more per high school student. 

CPS spokesman Joel Hood acknowledges that the district made budget adjustments that benefit charters above and beyond the $250 per student increase. Some charter schools are getting miscellaneous extra funding, such as for summer school, that charter schools have never been given before. 

Plus, one of the biggest “adjustments” is the additional federal grant money that will now be funneled to charters. District officials say it is the same share of federal grant money as district-run schools receive.

The federal money will include not just money for this year, but retroactive funding: Officials calculated an amount they believe charters should have been given last year and added it on to this year’s amount.

“We are really excited that charter students are now receiving their fair share of [federal] money,” Purvis says.

Finally, CPS officials made a change in how the district reports an administrative fee charged to charters. In previous years, the published per-pupil amount did not include that fee. This year, officials say they will publish the entire gross per-pupil figure, but will stipulate that the district will subtract a 3 percent administrative fee from that.

“This had the result of simplifying and making the fee more transparent, but also reduced the fee amount,” Hood says.

State funding task force convinced

CPS faced pressure to make adjustments to charter budgets from the state’s Charter School Funding Task Force. Made up of lawmakers, charter school operators and a representative from INCS, the task force was charged with making sure that district and charter schools are funded equally. Originally, the task force was focused on the provision in the Illinois law that calls for charter schools to be funded at 75 percent to 125 percent of the district’s per capita tuition, which is the amount a district would charge a non-resident to attend a school.    

Chicago’s per-capita tuition is $13,790, and the district has never come close to providing even 75 percent of that to charter schools.

After much discussion, CPS officials were able to convince the task force that per capita tuition was the wrong measure.

The task force’s final report recommended that student-based, or per-pupil, budgeting be used instead, with the range between 97 percent and 103 percent. (Districts that do not use per-pupil budgeting would use a different formula called the Charter Funding Calculation).

Though none of the task force’s recommendations have been incorporated into law, CPS officials write in the budget book that they had to make adjustments to satisfy the task force. As a result, CPS convinced the task force that its model “provides equity for operating funds,” according to the budget book.

Purvis says that while charter schools are grateful for the additional money, they, like district-run schools, suffer because Illinois continues to under-fund education. The lack of money prevents some higher-performing charter networks from opening schools in Chicago, she says..

Purvis says that she and other operators are concerned about next year. It’s estimated that the district will once again have a big budget deficit, but that Mayor Rahm Emanuel (should he win re-election) and district leaders won’t be as quick to use one-time accounting tricks to close a budget hole, as happened this year.  

“It is a scary time,” Purvis says.