A new report out today from the University of Arkansas looks at the funding of students with disabilities in charter schools in 18 cities, including Camden, New Jersey. In “Charter School Funding: Support for Students with Disabilities,” analysts Cassidy Syftestad, Patrick J. Wolf, Wendy Tucker, and Lauren Morando Rhims look at the funding gaps between traditional district schools and public charters, finding that charters have, overall, much less money to educate special needs students than their traditional counterparts. This is particularly true when charters are their own Local Education Agency (LEA) instead of part of the district they’re placed in.
In New Jersey, public charters are their own LEA.
It’s well-known that public charter schools receive less money per pupil than students in traditional district schools. In New Jersey, for example, charters receive, on average, about 73 cents for each student compared to every dollar spent on district students. Students with disabilities are more expensive to educate because they require more services and charters, like traditional schools, are legally obligated to enroll students eligible for special education services and follow the same accountability rules. In fact, in Newark and Camden, which house the New Jersey’s largest charter sectors, the district controls enrollment.
Yet charter schools often get a bad rap for enrolling lower percentages of students with disabilities. But they probably enroll more than you think. For example, in New York City, the country’s largest school district, 21.8% of students enrolled in district schools are classified; in charters, 18.5% are. In Chicago, 14.1% of students enrolled in district schools are classified; in charters, 15% are.
Camden’s not quite there yet: 18.3% of traditional public school (TPS) students are classified (the third highest among the 18 cities studied) but only 13.4% of Camden’s charter school students are classified, the fifth highest among the 18 charter sectors.
Not all disabilities are the same. More specifically, some disabilities are more severe than others and more expensive to provide the necessary services for students to have access to the federal law’s mandate of a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment.” The most expensive disability is autism, which sometimes requires one-on-one aides. New Jersey has the highest autism rates in the country–one in 45 children receive the diagnosis (for various reasons, not all diagnostic).
While the gap is shrinking between traditional and charter enrollment of students with high-cost disabilities, the authors say the gap remains: “A review of literature associated with a national study drawing upon 2015-16 enrollment data suggests that a combination of problematic messaging by charters, complex enrollment processes, the role of TPS in IEP decision-making, and some ‘counseling away might also be contributing to the overall gap in charter school enrollments of students with disabilities.”
And then there’s also the funding gap, the focus of this analysis. The gap between funding in traditional and charter schools in the 18 cities totals almost $5 billion.
Let’s drill down on Camden for the school year 2017-18. It’s one of the smaller cities studied, with 16,476 students total; during the year studied, 51.8% were enrolled in charters and renaissance schools. (Now it’s 66%.) The difference in enrollment of students with disabilities between the two sectors is 4.9%, the third highest gap among the 18 cities. (It’s 6.6 percentage points in Detroit and 5.3 percentage points in Tulsa.)
The authors calculate how much of the funding gap between Camden traditional and charter schools can be attributed to special education allocations, using data from the NJ Department of Education. Camden traditional schools spent $40,088,515 on special education. Camden charters spent $8,582,982 on special education. This comes out to $5,048 per student enrollment for traditionals and $1,001 per student enrollment for charters. Thus, the SPED Expenditure Gap in Camden is $4,047. From the report:
Camden’s total revenue disparity is $16,317 favoring TPS, so special education expenditures explain only 25% of the total funding disparity ($4,047 / $16,317).
That’s actually not so bad compared to the other 17 cities, putting Camden 4th in spending disparities attributable to special education costs.
The authors recommend policy changes to “1) reduce or eliminate charter school funding inequities, 2) introduce greater nuance to ensure dollars follow and align with student needs, and 3) ensure that charters have fair access to ‘risk pools’ for supporting students who have extraordinary needs would go a long way towards equalizing access to public schools of choice for students with disabilities.”
“Policymakers should prioritize providing adequate funding for students with disabilities,” said Lauren Morando Rhim, Ph.D., executive director and co-founder of The Center for Learner Equity. “Fully funding state ‘risk pools’ would offer schools access to funds to support students who require significant supports. Furthermore, while risk pools typically exist at the state level, cohorts of charters can pool their resources at the local level to realize economies of scale so central to providing quality services to students with disabilities. At the end of the day, all schools should have the resources to support every student.”