Ep. 16: New Research on Charter School Funding Inequity with Pat Wolf

September 22, 2017

In our latest podcast, EdChoice’s Drew Catt talks with Dr. Patrick Wolf, who has researched various forms of school choice for decades. Dr. Wolf explains the results of his latest co-authored report, Charter School Funding Inequity in New York City. Listen to get a summary of the report’s findings. Then, click here to check out the full report.

Drew Catt: Hello. I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and policy analysis, and I’m joined today by Dr. Patrick Wolf, distinguished professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform and co-author of the new report Charter School Funding Inequity in New York City.

Thank you for joining us, Patrick. Tell us what inspired this new research you did with Larry Maloney?

Patrick Wolf: Well, Drew, Larry and his team have been studying funding gaps for charter schools for more than a decade. Their first report was in 2005, based on fiscal year 2002 data, and they were one of the first research teams to report systemically that charter schools receive less funding per pupil than district schools. They have repeated their analysis multiple times, and I got involved more recently because they wanted to add some additional elements to their research, such as return on investment consideration.

I’ve followed their work for a long time, admired it for a long time, and was happy to be a part of it. This particular study was inspired by the fact that New York City is so big, so that gives us a very interesting subject matter for a fine grain analysis of charter school funding inequity and any variation in that funding inequity by charter school location or condition, and also by the fact that we had heard from people that New York City was doing interesting things to support their charter schools, and unconventional things to support their charter schools. The size and scope of New York City and the fact that they’ve been identified as innovators led us to do this deep dive on charter school funding in the Big Apple.

Drew Catt: What did you find in that deep dive? Was it the district schools or the charter schools that truly have the funding advantage in New York City?

Patrick Wolf: Well, the district schools continue to have a funding advantage. In terms of just cash dollars, it’s massive. It’s over $10,000 per student in terms of cash resources. But we also did confirm what other people were saying, and that is that the district itself provides a bevy of educational resources directly to charter schools, including transportation, food service, special education services, co-location of facilities so they make their facilities available to many charter schools, and we were able to account for the cash value of all of those in kind benefits that the district provides to charters, and still, even with 25% of their resources in the form of these in kind benefits, charter school students were still receiving nearly $5,000 less than per pupil if they attended a charter as opposed to a district school.

Drew Catt: I believe you mentioned in a recent presentation of your findings that this data might present a compelling case for student-based weighted funding. Could you elaborate more on that?

Patrick Wolf: Sure, Drew. A big part of the inequities in charter school funding is that charters and district schools are funded differently. In every place we’ve examined, they are funded at least somewhat differently. The most common difference is that district schools get either way more or all of the local education revenue for public schooling in their area, so charters get little public funding or no public funding. And then in some jurisdictions, the state tries to make up for it by sending special grants to charters. So there’s this idea that they bake into the way they fund public school kids, this difference between district schools and charter schools. It is local funding goes almost solely to district schools.

That obviously creates a big inequity, a big funding gap. Then they try to jerry-rig a solution to it, a compensation for it. Well, we see that in New York City, and the compensation is in the form of these in-kind services provided by the district. But as we’ve determined, it doesn’t fully compensate for the resources that the basic funding that charter schools are being denied by the funding formula. It helps, but it doesn’t completely close the gap.

It’s a complication, and it really depends upon continuing willingness of district leadership and district officials to deliver these services to charter schools and charter school students. I think it’s laudable that they’re doing that, but there’s less confidence that charter schools can be sure of that support going forward. It would just be simpler and more fair if we had a single funding system for all public school students that was weighted student funding, where any differences in funding were based on the needs of students as opposed to the type of public school that they are enrolled in.

Drew Catt: Yeah, I think that would make sense to me. Patrick, are these findings applicable to other cities and states? How is New York stacking up to other states with charter schools?

Patrick Wolf: Well, I think it’s a sort of yes and no thing. I think these findings are applicable to other cities and states because almost every city and state we’ve looked at in the last few years in terms of charter funding equity has an inequity that disadvantages charter schools. The exceptions are the state of Tennessee, which has approximate funding equity for their charter schools. And in fact in Memphis, the charter schools get some special funds in Memphis to the point where they are slightly overfunded on a per-pupil basis relative to district schools, but that is an exception.

In Houston … God bless the people of Houston if they can stay above water … but in Houston, the funding is approximately equitable, in part because Houston charter schools are able to raise a substantial amount of nonpublic funding. But really, our public funding system represents our commitment to the children of our country, and we really need greater equity in our public funding systems.

What New York shows is how you can use an extraordinary effort by the district to provide in kind services in support of charter school students, to basically treat the charter school students as their own student. You can use that as a stopgap to deal with the immediate needs of charter students in an environment of funding inequity that helps some, that helps stanch the bleeding. But it doesn’t completely solve the problem. That’s why I think student-based funding– weighted funding–is a much better, more comprehensive solution. But it at least shows that in New York the people delivering public education in New York are considering the needs of all public school students, including those in charter schools.

A cautionary note, though, about this approach is, as you know, charter schools are designed to be independent public schools and to basically be autonomous and able to innovate and operate based on their own commitments to their customers as opposed to a set of district rules. And we do have some concerns that to the extent that charter schools are dependent upon districts to deliver transportation and food service and special education services and these other things, that they might be sacrificing some of their autonomy.

Really the two reasons why we think that this is an imperfect solution to charter school funding equity is it doesn’t get the charter students to full equity and it potentially endangers the autonomy of charters.

Drew Catt: Patrick, how can policy makers in New York or other states use these findings? Is there anything they can take away and use right now?

Patrick Wolf: Well, one thing we’re able to determine is that in terms of the geographic variation in funding of public and charter schools in New York across different boroughs, and even across the Harlem and Manhattan parts of the island of Manhattan, we do see funding differences tracking with greater student need. Not perfectly, but for the most part. That suggests that New York State has done some things right in terms of their fair student funding. They do have a weighted student funding system. It’s a partially weighted student funding system, and it is directing some dollars to more needy populations by geography.

We confirmed that, that they’ve done some things right. But again, I think the takeaway is they haven’t really gotten to the point where a public school student is getting the same amount of funds, whether they’re in a district-run public school or independent charter school, and that’s really the goal. That’s the ideal. That way parents don’t have to choose between an interesting charter school that’s underfunded or a district school that’s maybe less of a good match for their child’s needs, but it has more resources. Parents shouldn’t have to make that kind of a trade-off. Ideally, they would make their public school choices without resource considerations or resource constraints involved. Policymakers in New York still have some work to do on that front.

Drew Catt: Patrick, what other research, if any, would you like to see following this report?

Patrick Wolf: We have a couple of ideas for how we are going to extend this research. One is it’s going to be part of a return on investment study, where we take the funding inequities that we observe across multiple cities. We did a 15 city study where we found variation in funding and equity for charter schools. In those charter school areas, we also find different variation in charter school performance relative to district schools. Borrowing from some research that other researchers have done on the relative effectiveness of charter schools, we’re going to marry those data with the funding amounts and generate a comparative return on investment analysis for charter sectors versus sectors in these 15 cities. That’s one of our next extensions of this research.

But we’d also like to do a deep dive case study like this in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a very interesting context for charter schooling. We’ve seen an explosion of charter schools. There was a bit of a political backlash, and then backlash was overcome in recent elections, where the school board that was elected to oversee Los Angeles Unified now is overwhelmingly populated by charter school supporters. It would be very interesting for us to study the extent to which that leads to greater funding equity in Los Angeles in the context of that large city seeking to deliver education to students in both district run public schools and in a very vibrant charter sector.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that sounds fascinating. We here at EdChoice always look forward to your research. Other than those charter school funding projects you mentioned, what’s your next project?

Patrick Wolf: Well, Drew, I’m continuing to look at private school choice. It’s still an exciting avenue for evaluation, and of course, it’s interesting that yesterday Illinois passed … both houses of their legislature passed a private school choice bill for the first time … that they both agreed on a similar bill. That’s exciting that Illinois will be joining. Another program added to the pile. Private school choice is still really interesting, and my two big ongoing projects with that is we’re going to look at more long-term outcomes of the Louisiana Scholarship Program, including fourth year test score effects and initial evidence on the effect of that program on student attainment, on educational attainment. Getting past that problematic first year of implementation there where we saw negative test score effects, we’re now seeing a more positive trend, and so we’re going to look at the latest data on the Louisiana Scholarship Program.

Then secondly, I’m doing a study in collaboration with the Urban Institute, looking at educational attainment effects of private school choice in Milwaukee, Washington, DC, and the state of Florida. That’s a pretty exciting project.

Drew Catt: Yeah. That will definitely be interesting and we will be keeping our eyes and ears out. Patrick, do you have anything else to add today?

Patrick Wolf: I appreciate being on the show, Drew. School choice continues to teach us a lot. I’m really excited about this kind of research. It’s very practical and can help inform policymakers. First of all, it dismisses a lot of myths about public charter schools. There’s a myth that they are fully funded equitably with public schools. That’s rarely the case. There’s also a myth that they receive billions and billions of dollars in philanthropy that levels the playing field or even gives them an advantage. What we found in New York, one of our many interesting findings, is that nonpublic funding actually is higher per pupil for district schools in New York than in the charter schools in New York.

Philanthropy isn’t closing the charter school funding gap in New York. It’s actually widening it. It’s fun to be able to dismiss myths with cold hard facts, and it’s fun to develop research that can help policymakers improve the educational system for the benefit of children.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that sounds amazing. As someone with a degree in philanthropic studies, that finding that you mentioned is very astounding to me.

Well, Patrick, thank you so much for joining us and chatting New York charter school funding.

Patrick Wolf: You’re certainly welcome, Drew.

Drew Catt: Check out the description box for a link to Dr. Wolf’s report, and don’t forget to subscribe to our podcasts for more of our coverage of new school choice research and education reform policy chats. Thank you for listening, and until next time, take care.