Charter vs. Traditional School Funding

This is the time of year that school districts work on their budgets for the next school year and one question that I am often asked is, “Why do public schools cost more than charter schools?” The short answer here is that charter schools are not less expensive than public schools. What is needed is a basic understanding of how both are funded. Charter schools are public schools and thus, can receive funds from the same sources as other schools. The three prime categories of funding are state, local and federal funds. Let’s look at each area and compare charter schools with the funds that traditional public schools receive.

First, let’s examine state funds. State funds include dollars per average daily membership (ADM), Children with Disabilities (CWD) and Limited English Proficiency (LEP). Fines and forfeitures are also included in state funds. For each student enrolled, the charter school will receive an amount equal to the state per pupil allocation for the district in which the student was enrolled. The chart below shows what New Hanover County students received, and what was paid to charter schools this past school year.
2011-12 State Dollars ($/ADM) NHCS Charters

As you can see, with the exception of Drivers Education, charter schools receive the same state funding as traditional schools. What often happens is that there are more special education students as a percentage in traditional schools. Additionally, with few exceptions, charter schools do not serve the severely handicapped students. This can include students with autism, traumatic brain injuries and severe cognitive disorders. This can skew the per-pupil average considerably.

The same holds true for local funding. Charter schools receive the same per student local funding that traditional public school students receive. Charter schools do not receive capital funds for building repairs.

Charter schools may apply for federal funds if they qualify, and some charter schools do apply. They can apply for federal Title I funding, Career and Technical Education (CTE) funding, and most of the other categories that public schools apply for. What often happens is that their numbers do not allow for them to reach a certain threshold. Title I funding is a prime example. This is federal funding given to schools that have a high poverty rate. Some charter schools apply for and receive this funding, but many do not because their student population does not meet the required poverty threshold.

There are some other funds, such as Pre-K and ROTC that do not flow to charters because they do not have these programs or the funds are allocated in a program specific manner. Charters may apply for federal meals money, but if they receive these funds, they must meet all the nutritional guidelines mandated by the federal government. Most charters choose not to do this because of the requirements.

While charter schools do not receive funds for capital, they have several monetary advantages over public schools. They do not have to provide transportation for their students which can be expensive, nor do they have to participate in the federal foods programs. The vast majority of charters do not offer a comprehensive sports program. They may have some limited programs but they do not run the 30-plus sports that we do in New Hanover County Schools. Most charters do not offer the comprehensive arts programs that you will find in the traditional public schools. Most of our elementary schools offer at least full time arts and music, and some have even more. Our middle schools offer visual arts, band, orchestra, chorus, theatre arts and other programs. The high school offering is even more extensive with multiple opportunities for high level performances, advanced courses and competitions.

In many respects, this is an oversimplification of a complicated process, but I hope that it helps clear up some of the misconceptions about funding related to charter schools and traditional public schools. Where the differences arise is often with federal funds, and special category funds. Even here, charters often can access the funds if they qualify. The base allocation for every student whether in charter or public schools is the same.

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