Some state and national leaders have questioned funding levels for charter public schools. But cutting funds for charter schools like those in Detroit would only widen the funding gap between them and neighboring school districts.
A new study from the University of Arkansas finds that, in 2017-18, Detroit charter schools took in 29% less revenue per student, on average, than the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Only a quarter of the gap is explained by extra costs the district must pay to teach more special education students. As large as Detroit’s gap is, 11 of the 18 U.S. cities in the national study revealed even greater funding inequities between charter and district-run schools.
That the Detroit district collects more funds than the large collection of nearby charter schools is hardly revelatory. A first-of-its-kind 2018 report from the Mackinac Center found that the city’s charters received about one-third less funding per pupil in 2014-15. The report also estimated a return on investment in lifetime earnings 2.5 times greater for charter graduates over DPSCD graduates for every dollar spent.
In the new University of Arkansas analysis, Detroit was only one of four cities where the conventional district received more per student from every major revenue source: local, state, federal and nonpublic. The first three categories comprise all the taxes collected at different levels of government. The fourth includes user fees and private donations.
The fact that public charter schools significantly lagged in 2018 funding levels makes all the more egregious subsequent political attempts to benefit conventional districts at their expense. Last fall, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wielded her veto pen to deny charters a per-pupil increase that benefited all other Michigan public schools.
In so doing, the governor turned back on her own stated plan to provide more funding to schools that serve more low-income students. Our state’s charter schools clearly fit that bill. Protests from charter school parents helped pressure Gov. Whitmer to relent on the veto after nearly three months, adding the extra funds right before the Christmas holiday.
Other charter critics failed to learn from the episode. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission recently called for a 25% per-pupil cut targeted at charters alone. Local professional basketball legend and charter school founder Jalen Rose pointed out that the commission’s recommendation sent a message to the mostly black and low-income students at his Detroit charter high school that “they’re only worth three-quarters of a person.”
Federal officials hold fewer of the K-12 education purse strings than Lansing lawmakers do, but the pending change of presidential administrations could further exacerbate the financial gap facing Detroit charter schools. Former Vice President Joe Biden told teachers union officials during his campaign that he shares their views on charter schools and will withhold federal dollars at least from those that contract with for-profit management companies, which make up about 48% of charters in Michigan.
Nearly half of Detroit students and families have chosen charter schools, one of the highest rates among American cities. Yet Gov. Whitmer and President-elect Biden, whom Detroit voters supported by wide margins in their respective election victories, have agendas that seek to undermine that choice.
These political dynamics expose the challenge of addressing the large inequities highlighted in the new University of Arkansas study. Any attempt to make education funding fairer for the mostly poor and minority Michigan students who opt for charters will have to overcome the resistance of two highly placed elected leaders.
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