If public education is America’s great equalizer – helping to level the playing field for the disadvantaged – why don’t all public school students receive equal funding?
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That’s a question facing many local boards of education across the nation, which are increasingly adopting school choice programs but rejecting equal funding for charter school students.
Long ago, the nation, thanks to a historic Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, dismantled equal-in-name but unequal-in-practice, racially based school segregation. The time has come to make a similar change to local school system funding formulas that allot more funds to traditional public schools than public charter schools. Most of the present formulas, of course, are not as odious as segregation, but they could be considered just as onerous to the education of children from all backgrounds.
In my home state of Colorado, the average public charter school student receives an average of 20 percent less funding than their peers in traditional public schools, largely because of the unequal distribution of local tax revenue.
The issue is now coming to a head in Colorado, one of the first states to adopt charter schools, where the state legislature is debating a bipartisan bill to remedy the situation. The proposed legislation would make the state the first in the nation to ensure local school districts share local tax revenue with public charter school students on an equal basis.
Special interest groups are loudly contesting the bill, to be sure. But their rancor stands in sharp contrast to the common sense decisions made by several leading school districts in the state, including Denver and Boulder, where local tax revenue is already shared equally with public charter school students.
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The resistance of politicians is puzzling, as choice and charter schools are overwhelmingly popular. In a recent poll, more than 84 percent of Colorado voters said they support legislation that ensures taxpayer funding benefits public charter school students and traditional public school students equally.
In Colorado, charter schools are tuition-free, public schools that are open to all children. They have the flexibility to be innovative, entrepreneurial and self-governing, and are held accountable for student performance.
Charter schools in Colorado work with diverse students, who mirror the diversity of our state. Currently, 46.9 percent of Colorado charter public school students identified as students of color, compared to 45.7 percent of the state’s traditional public school students. Public charter schools are also posting impressive results for kids: In 2014, students in charter schools were more likely to score proficient or advanced in math, reading and writing on the state assessment than their peers in traditional public schools. This result was true across all demographic groups.
Thus, much of the opposition to equalization appears to come not from parents, but from defenders of the status quo who fear a loss of clout if charter schools continue to grow.
Unequal funding isn’t the only burden charter schools face. In most states, like Colorado, public charter schools have to locate and acquire their facilities, which may require them to use part of their per-pupil funding for capital spending rather than student needs.
As a society, we have come a long way since Brown v. Board, yet high hurdles still exist. Colorado’s policymakers must work together to end the separate and unequal funding for public charter school students. It has become the new form of inequality and discrimination in our schools, and it is hurting kids. Taxpayers have grown tired of the ill-conceived practice and lawmakers should take swift action to reject it once and for all.
Scott Laband is president of Colorado Succeeds, a Denver-based, non-profit think tank that focuses on education and business issues.