By Kyle Wingfield
Charter schools are public schools. Charter schools are public schools. Charter schools are public schools.
Forgive the repetition, but for a lot of people this simple fact doesn’t seem to be sinking in.
The legislative session that ended March 29 saw a number of policy fights, but the most surprising, and disappointing, might have been the one waged over a bill to bring state charter schools — one subset of one subset of public schools — merely up to the statewide average for per-pupil funding.
House Bill 787 didn’t clear the Senate until after 8 p.m. on Day 40, more than a month after the House passed it. In the end, it did so with the support of a majority of both Republicans and Democrats. In between, however, there was much debate and hand-wringing about what was being done for charters as opposed to “public schools.”
Remember: Students of state charter schools are public-school students, incurring the same obligations as students in traditional public schools.
With that in mind, it’s hard to square the opposition to the bill from some of the same lawmakers and activists who regularly demand more funding for schools. If more funding is the recipe for improving traditional public schools, as they insist, then why should these other public schools continue to languish at the bottom of the funding rankings?
One line of thinking holds that the state ought not to boost this small handful of schools when dozens of districts are also below the state average. What, they ask, is the difference?
I can think of at least one big difference: Unlike those districts, state charter schools don’t have the authority to levy taxes, and thereby raise their own funding.
In Georgia, local taxes make up about 40 percent of all school funding — not including sales taxes for education. That means overall funding levels depend a great deal on how much local taxpayers pitch in. In 2016-17, just seven of Georgia’s 180 school districts spent less than the overall state average despite spending more local money than average; most of them were suburban districts such as Cobb, Forsyth and Oconee counties.
The rest of the below-average spenders simply tend to raise less money from their local taxpayers than their higher-spending peers. There may be good reason for that in some of those cases. (It’s also one reason Gov. Nathan Deal was right to try to change the state’s funding formula to one that would have favored districts with, among other things, a greater share of poor households. Too bad the education establishment did little to push that effort along.)
But the point is local districts have the authority to change their funding through taxation, whether they choose to use that authority or not. State charter schools lack that power; only the state can boost their funding.
Now, it’s also true that charter schools are intended in part to be experiments on many levels. That includes the idea public education could be more financially efficient. More money isn’t necessarily the answer. There’s no reason to lift charters to the very top tier of funding, and in any case that’s far from what HB 787 did.
But nor is there a good reason to keep their funding artificially low, particularly not in the name of being “fair” to “public schools.”
Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (April 9, 2018). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.