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Charter School Funding: Less Money for Fewer Obligations

Study finds that different requirements explain much of the funding gap between charter schools and traditional public schools

Contact: Gary Miron - (269-599-7965);

BOULDER, Colo., and TEMPE, Ariz., June 29, 2010 - A new study released today finds that charter schools typically get less funding than the traditional public schools with which they compete. But it also finds that those traditional public schools have additional obligations, accounting for much or all of those funding differences.

This finding is one of several that professor Gary Miron and his co-author Jessica Urschel make in Equal or Fair? A Study of Revenues and Expenditures in American Charter Schools, co-published by the Education and the Public Interest Center, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the Education Policy Research Unit, at Arizona State University.

Miron and Urshel also point out that, compared with traditional public schools, charter schools spend proportionally more on administration - in the percentage of overall spending that goes to administrative costs, as well as in the salaries they pay administrative personnel. Overall, however, charter schools spend less than traditional public schools: less on instruction, less on student support services and less on teacher salaries and benefits.

The study comes amid a growing debate over the question of whether charter schools are inadequately funded compared with traditional public schools. In recent years, numerous charter school advocates have cited the purported funding gap to help explain charter schools' achievement results compared with traditional public schools.

Miron and Urschel's study is the most comprehensive to date on the question. It uses data from the U.S. Department of Education on revenue sources and spending patterns of charter schools and traditional public schools and districts across the nation. It also examines patterns across nine different comparison groups, ranging from traditional public schools to various sub-groups of charter schools.

"On first appearance, charter schools receive less revenue per pupil ($9,883) than traditional public schools ($12,863)," Miron and Urschel find. Yet, they add, this direct comparison "may be misleading." States vary considerably in the way they channel funds to charter schools. Moreover, public schools provide - and receive funds for - certain services that most charter schools do not. While public schools receive revenues and spend money for such services as special education, student support services, transportation, and food service, charter schools (with few exceptions) spend far less on these services - which largely explain the differences in revenues and expenditures for charters compared with traditional schools.

"When charter schools and traditional public schools have similar programs and services and when they serve similar students, funding levels should be equal in order to be considered fair," they write. "However, as long as traditional public schools are delivering more programs, serving wider ranges of grades, and enrolling a higher proportion of students with special needs, they will require relatively higher levels of financial support. Under these circumstances, differences or inequality in funding can be seen as reasonable and fair."

Find the Equal or Fair? A Study of Revenues and Expenditures in American Charter Schools by Gary Miron and Jessica Urschel on the web at:

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The Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU) at Arizona State University collaborate to produce policy briefs and think tank reviews. Our goal is to promote well-informed democratic deliberation about education policy by providing academic as well as non-academic audiences with useful information and high quality analyses. This policy brief was made possible in part by the generous support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

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