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Utah charters get fewer state dollars than traditional schools

Published May 1, 2014 9:53 am

Per-pupil spending, broader inequities are larger issues, say education leaders.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Despite their growing popularity, Utah charter schools get nearly 21 percent fewer state dollars per student than traditional public schools, according to a new report.

Utah charter schools, which are independently-run public schools, received $6,352 per student on average in fiscal year 2011, versus $7,995 in traditional public schools, according to a report released Wednesday by the University of Arkansas' School Choice Demonstration Project.

The report's authors gave Utah a grade of D for that gap. Nationwide, however, the disparity is even bigger.

Charter schools across the country received an average of $3,509 less per student, meaning Utah still had the 10th lowest gap among the 30 states (and the District of Columbia) that were studied.

Chris Bleak, president of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said he's not surprised by the report's findings.

He called it a concern, though he noted that many Utah charter schools have had great success despite fewer dollars. He said state leaders should study those successes. Utah has 90 charter schools that enroll about 8 percent of all public school students.

"We should make sure we're capturing the data and using the data to better inform our decisions," Bleak said.

But JoDee Sundberg, a leader of the Utah School Boards Association, noted that in some cases — such as in Alpine District — the district collects less money in some areas than nearby charters receive.

"Charter schools were implemented to be more innovative and do it for less, and that's just not been the case," she said. "It's been more difficult than what they thought it would be."

Robert Smith, legislative chair for the Utah Association of School Business Officials, also added that charter schools tend to have fewer mandates and more flexibility than traditional schools, so comparing the two can be difficult.

Also, financial comparisons between charters and traditional schools among Utah organizations show different results than the Arkansas study. The Utah Taxpayers Association found, for example, only a $103 difference between average per pupil spending in charters versus school districts in 2011-2012.

The report blamed the disparity in Utah on differences in how charter and traditional schools are funded in various areas. For example, Utah charter schools can't raise taxes like school districts can. They receive some money, mostly from the state, to make up for that — but it's still sometimes a smaller amount than what many districts can raise through local property taxes.

Also, charter schools don't receive state money for busing. And they don't receive as many federal dollars as traditional schools, possibly because they don't have the time or resources to apply for the money, or possibly because of federal rules that favor big districts when it comes to Title I money, according to the report.

Title I money is for schools serving large percentages of students from low-income families.

Bleak, however, said he believes the bigger overall issue is education funding inequities in Utah, in general.

In Utah, state-level funding is distributed equally per student, but the amount of local property taxes school districts collect varies widely, depending largely on the wealth of their communities.

In recent years, some lawmakers have attempted to minimize those differences. But such bills have generally failed amid worries they would take money from richer districts to give to poorer ones, and/or that they would mean higher taxes for homeowners across the state.

"I think that needs to be the public policy issue for the state, allowing our schools to compete against one another based on reasonably equal revenues," Bleak said.

Gregory Cox, principal at Monticello Academy in West Valley City, also cited low per pupil spending as one of Utah's larger education finance issues. Utah has the lowest per pupil spending in the nation.

Sundberg agreed that she'd like to see state leaders find a way to more fairly fund all students, regardless of where they attend school.

"Whether it be charter schools or public schools, we just need to be able to fund kids," Sundberg said. "That's the most important thing."

The report also compared per pupil funding between the Salt Lake City and Granite school districts and charters. It found an even greater disparity — 32 percent — between funding for Salt Lake City district schools and charters. It found a smaller gap between Granite schools and charters of about 12 percent.

Nationally, the report found that the gap between charter and traditional school funding grew by 55 percent in recent years. The report did not include past years of data for Utah.

The report's authors said making funding more equal is about finding the political will.

"State funding equity is headed in the wrong direction so we must recalculate and reconsider state funding mechanisms," said Jay May, a report author.