charter funding

Study: Private dollars give Memphis charter schools edge in per-pupil funding

A new study says charter schools in Memphis are bucking a national trend in per-pupil funding, thanks mostly to philanthropic support that has them eclipsing total revenue received by traditional schools.

A University of Arkansas report released Wednesday found that charter schools in the 15 cities studied received significantly less public funding per pupil than did traditional schools. But Memphis was unique because private sources filled the gap — and then some, resulting in 9 percent more funding per student than for the city’s traditional counterparts.

“(Memphis charters have) been great at raising funds. They’ve basically fundraised themselves to parity,” said Patrick Wolf, a researcher at the university’s School Choice Demonstration Project.

The report was funded by the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat also receives funding from the Walton Foundation. You can see our full list of supporters here.)

The report is based on charter school audits from 2014 and says that private funding accounted for $1,446 per student, or nearly 14 percent of the sector’s revenue in Memphis. Without it, the funding level would be 3 percent less than received by the city’s traditional schools, according to the researchers, whose methodology has been questioned in previous years.

Charter school advocates long have complained about a gap in public funding between charter and traditional schools. And last summer, a state comptroller’s report said it’s unclear if Tennessee charter schools are receiving the right amount of money from their local districts.

In Memphis, which has most of the state’s charter schools, the issue has come under a microscope, especially related to the cost of facilities. In response to that concern, Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget for next year invests $6 million annually for charter facilities statewide.

Charter schools were established in 1991 in Minnesota as a publicly funded tool for innovation. In exchange for the promise of better academic outcomes, they receive greater autonomy. Undergirding the movement is also the expectation of more financial efficiency.

That makes the Memphis finding unusual. The researchers say the city’s charter school leaders have gotten better at raising money since the project’s last report that examined 2011 revenues. Still, Wolf said it would be better if they didn’t have to.  

“Is that sustainable in the long run?” he asked. If public funding for charters matched traditional schools, charter schools could “focus more of the administrative activity on education rather than funding.”

Memphis charter leaders said the report paints a rosier picture than the reality for charter operators who have been on their own to pay for facilities. That issue makes for an apples-and-oranges comparison, said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center.

“(Shelby County Schools) money goes straight to academics. The charters have to split up that amount to go to capital and instruction,” said Mercer, who also co-chairs a committee of district and charter leaders working to sort out issues like these. “If I have $9,000 splitting it two ways and you have $9,000 split one way, you have more money.”

The University of Arkansas group’s previous studies on charter funding inequities have come under fire for methodology used by its researchers. The Tennessee Department of Education has instructed Shelby County Schools to use a different enrollment year than used by the researchers to calculate how much money to allocate to charter schools, which could result in lower amounts of funding than cited in Wednesday’s report.

testing testing

New York won’t apply for federal program that would have allowed for ‘innovative’ state tests

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

A major makeover of the state’s English and math tests is not in the cards, top state education officials said Tuesday.

New York will not apply for a federal pilot program, which would have allowed the state to experiment with different kinds of math and English tests for grades 3-8, officials announced Tuesday. Last May, the state indicated it would apply.

The decision — which was based on the state’s conclusion that developing new tests would be too expensive — largely shuts the door on major testing changes, such as having students complete projects or submit examples of their work.

Creating “innovative assessments” for the math and English tests is a “very, very, large project,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said. “If we did it in some other areas, I think that we would have a lot more success with less costs,” she said, referring to subjects like science and social studies, as well as the exams that high school students must pass in order to graduate.

The move is likely to rankle parents who have led the charge to boycott state exams in New York, which has been rocked by one of the largest opt-out movements in the country. Though the state has already made some changes to the tests, including shortening them and giving students unlimited time to complete the material, these parents have called for more. Last year, nearly one in five families chose to have their children sit out of the tests.

Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, a group that helped organize the opt-out movement, said she hadn’t expected major changes to come from the pilot program. But she’s disappointed that the state isn’t looking separately to take a new approach to its annual tests.

“I am frustrated as someone who opts their children out,” Rudley said. “If we have to do an assessment, it should be a value for the student and teachers to drive instruction.”

State officials say that more changes are not feasible right now. The state is already in the process of shortening the tests from three days to two and reworking test questions to match the state’s newly revamped learning standards.

“The fact that there is no additional federal funding available to implement the pilot means the Department must focus its resources on more immediate assessment priorities,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “We will continue to look for opportunities in the future should resources allow.”

Elia said the state is interested in experimenting with new tests in science, social studies, and for graduating students. State officials gave few additional details, but said the science tests should be “hands-on” and mentioned creating a “capstone” project for graduating students.

“Those are all things that are still on the page for a different approach for assessment,” Elia said.

extra time

Expect delays: New York will release statewide test scores later this year

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Are more students across New York state able to read and do math on grade level? This year, it will take a little longer to find out.

The state doesn’t expect to release scores for this year’s reading and math tests until mid-September, officials announced Tuesday. That’s at least a month later than usual: In recent years, the scores have come out between late July and mid-August.

The delay is caused by the state’s switch from three-day tests to ones that take just two days. The move requires officials to take extra time to figure out how many questions students must answer correctly in order to earn a passing score — a process that must happen every time tests are retooled.

But teachers and schools will not have test data any later than normal, officials said. The raw data which lets teachers know how their students did   will still be released in June, and schools will receive information about how many students passed the test in August.

The lag time between when schools receive information and the public release allows state officials to double check the data and make sure it is correct, officials said.

“The only thing that you have to think about the shift is when we can report out statewide,” said Angélica Infante-Green, a deputy commissioner who oversees instruction (and who has made the news this week because she’s up for the top education job in Massachusetts). “That is the only thing that is different.”