The 17 cities with big gaps in charter, public student funding

A study from the University of Arkansas shows the disparities between the two groups, in some cases as much as a $16,000 difference between pupils.
By: | November 20, 2020
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A recently completed 15-year study done by researchers at the University of Arkansas shows that public charter school students in 17 major metropolitan areas have received thousands less in funding than traditional public school students.

In only one location – Shelby County in Memphis, Tenn. – were the gaps close enough to not show inequity between the two groups. Otherwise, the average difference was around $8,000 per pupil according to findings from the extensive project, Charter School Funding: Inequity Surges in the Cities, which concluded with the most-recent data from the 2018 fiscal school year.

It is unclear whether those gaps have closed since the COVID-19 pandemic, but researchers say they are planning another update for 2021.

The report says that disparities are primarily due to a lack of local funding in 16 of the 17 other metros – Atlanta, Boston, Camden, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Memphis, New Orleans, New York City, Oakland, Phoenix, San Antonio, Tulsa (Washington, D.C. does not factor in). Researchers say those gaps increased from 2016 to 2018 and for eight of the school districts they’ve studied since 2003, they nearly doubled.

In their conclusion, they recommend all local funds to be pooled in one formula and distributed equitably so that “we be confident that children will not be valued less simply because they are being educated in a public charter school.”

“After analyzing funding gaps between public charter and traditional public schools for over a decade, these findings represent the largest inequity yet, a gap of 33 percent,” said Patrick J. Wolf, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice, University of Arkansas. “This is a wake-up call for policymakers to develop more equitable school funding solutions. Closing the funding gap can help all schools deliver on the promise of a high-quality education for every student.”

Where are the most significant disparities?

In terms of percentage, the public charter schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, showed a 57% difference (an average of $11,327 less) between public charter and traditional public school students. The biggest in terms of dollar amounts was just over $16,000 per student in Camden, N.J.

In the area with the most equitable balance between the two groups, Shelby County had a difference of only $550, or 4%. Boston and Houston were the only cities in the original research done in 2003 that have managed to close gaps. Though Boston’s disparity was only a 7% difference, that gap of $1,698 was still significant enough for further policy changes to be recommended.

How wide are the gaps in other metro areas?

  • Houston: 11% ($1,455)
  • San Antonio: 15% ($2,012)
  • New York City: 19% ($6,178)
  • Phoenix: 23% ($2,761)
  • Detroit: 29% ($4,572)
  • Oakland: 31% ($5,978)
  • Washington DC: 31% ($11,730)
  • New Orleans: 33% ($6,174)
  • Los Angeles 35% ($7,295)
  • Denver 36% ($7,395)
  • Tulsa: 41% ($5,263)
  • Indianapolis 43% ($6,932)
  • Chicago 48% ($13,260)
  • Atlanta: 52% ($10,841)

Other notable findings

Researchers dispel claims from critics that public schools traditionally enroll far more English Language Learners, special needs students and those who receive free-and-reduced lunch than the public charters. In their findings they note an only 1% difference in favor of publics among low-income students.

While there were notable 15% differences in three cities – Atlanta, Camden and Tulsa – there were more students who received free lunch in charter schools in seven of the metro areas in the study. ELL students did show a 4% gap in favor of traditional public schools and a 3% difference overall in special needs students.

However, researchers say that even after factoring in all of those differences, “the fact remains that nearly two-thirds of the charter school funding gap is unexplained after accounting for differences in funding linked to student disadvantage. The inequality in charter school funding represents an unjustified inequity in funding.”

In addition to local funding, Arkansas researchers note surprising disparities in non-public funding and giving between the two groups, with charter school students actually receiving $1,400 less than public schools.

Where charter states make up a bit of ground is funding on the state level, with just over $400 per students gained in those metro areas.