A newly released report by a Washington-based think tank added fuel yesterday to a running debate on whether the District's charter schools receive a fair share of public education dollars.
The study by the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an organization that supports school reform, says that charter schools in the District and states throughout the country receive less per-pupil funding than regular public schools in the same jurisdictions. It said the funding gap in the District was $3,552 per student, higher than the average disparity of $1,801.
But in releasing the report yesterday, the institute's researchers acknowledged that it was based on data from 2002-03 and that the funding of D.C. charter schools -- particularly their facilities allowance -- has increased significantly since then. In fact, the charter school movement here in some respects is a model for the nation, officials at the think tank said.
"D.C. has one of the most equitable funding mechanisms across the land," said Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Fordham Institute. "Local and federal officials should be congratulated for that."
Nevertheless, the report sparked renewed debate on whether the distribution of public dollars between D.C. charter and regular schools is fair, with some saying that the regular schools are getting shortchanged.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said he has not seen the study, but he disputed the notion that charter schools in the District receive significantly less per-pupil funding than traditional public schools.
By coincidence, Williams and a U.S. Department of Education official appeared yesterday morning at the Elsie Whitlow Stokes public charter school in Northwest Washington to announce that the city will receive an annual federal grant of $5 million for the next three years to help fund salaries and programs at new charter schools. The District has received similar awards over the past decade.
Williams praised the performance of D.C. charter schools, which enroll more than 15,000 students, or about 21 percent of total public school enrollment.
The mayor also said he disagreed with some city leaders, including Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), who have argued that the growth of charter schools could cause further deterioration of the traditional public school system.
"I think the best prescription for the system is to get competitive. . . . I think just artificially saying that we're going to shut off access and options for parents limits choices because it doesn't motivate the existing system to get its act together and continue to improve," Williams said.
Williams said he will try to persuade Cropp, who is expected to announce her campaign for mayor next month, to change her view of charter schools. "I hope . . . if I decide not to run, as a private citizen, I could convince her to feel differently," he said.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who chairs the education committee, has scheduled a hearing Oct. 6 to look into various aspects of the D.C. charter school law, including funding.
Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run and are exempt from many local and state education regulations.
The institute's 141-page report covers the District and the 16 states with the largest charter school enrollments. It concludes that in all but one of those jurisdictions, charter schools received less per-pupil funding than regular public schools, despite requirements for equal funding. Researchers attributed the disparity largely to the charter schools' inability to gain access to funding for capital expenses.
Brenda L. Belton, executive director of the D.C. Board of Education's charter school office, said the D.C. Council approved a $2,800-per-student allotment that charter schools can use to construct, purchase or lease a facility. The institute's researchers acknowledged that their data were from an earlier school year.
"No other state provides that," Belton said of the allotment. "The only problem is that you're in a hot real estate market, and the money doesn't buy you much."
Gina Arlotto, co-founder and president of Save Our Schools, a group that has filed a lawsuit against the city alleging that traditional public schools are losing money to charter schools, said the facilities allowance is too generous.
Arlotto noted that city officials calculated the charters' allowance based on the regular school system's capital budget. She said the calculations were flawed because the capital spending for that period included several construction projects that were wildly over budget.
"Charter schools see themselves as the poor stepchild of the D.C. education scene. It's simply not true," she said.