Big Bucks or Big Misconception? Report Sheds Light on Philanthropy in Charter Sector

Last Friday, we celebrated votes in two of my favorite districts, Jeffco and Thompson, to provide more equitable funding to charter school students. In that post, I briefly mentioned that there were some inaccurate anti-equitability arguments floating around before the board votes. We’re going to tackle one of those misconceptions today: The argument that charters do not need more funding because they pull in untold sums of money from philanthropic sources.

First, though, a disclaimer: We will not be playing the irritating fill-in-the-blank game that often crops up in charter funding discussions. You know the one. It involves a statement that goes something like this: “Charters receive all their money from [INSERT SCARY ORGANIZATION OR INDIVIUDAL NAME]!”

Anti-charter folks really love to go down this road from time to time, and they do occasionally come up with some pretty entertaining conspiracy theories. Even so, we’re going to stick with the numbers. I’ve never much cared for black helicopters, anyway. They’d be much cooler with green polka dots.

Fortunately, we have plenty of numbers to stick with thanks to a brand spanking new report from the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform. You may remember their other awesome report on charter funding and productivity, which we talked about last summer. The new report is a continuation of the charter funding research discussion, a deeper dive into the numbers behind charter schools in the United States.

The report seems to be methodologically sound, makes good sense, and is the first report of its kind that I know of. It’s definitely worth a full read. If you’re in a hurry (and who isn’t), here’s a quick synopsis of the findings:

  • While both traditional public schools and charter schools receive philanthropic funding, charters do indeed receive larger amounts per pupil and as a percentage of their total non-public funds

  • But, those philanthropic funds are not distributed anywhere close to equally among charter schools. The overwhelming majority of philanthropic donations go disproportionately to smaller subsets of the overall charter school population.

  • Philanthropic dollars account for only a very small percentage of total charter revenue, and do not come close to closing persistent funding gaps between charters and traditional public schools.

Those findings should be enough to poke some pretty big holes in the general argument that charters do not require equitable funding because they are fully making up for lost revenue in other ways. As the report’s authors put it:

Contrary to popular conceptions, philanthropy fails to rectify funding inequities between charters and TPS and even contributes to funding inequities among charter schools. Ultimately, philanthropy alone can neither be a substitute for equity in public funding nor the sole solution to close the total revenue gap between charters and TPS.

Yes, I know there are some who like to argue with research because it didn’t happen in Colorado specifically. Good news on that front: Colorado is one of the studied states. Here are some fun statistics from our own backyard:

  • In Colorado, 60% of Colorado charter students receive about 95% of the philanthropic funds given to all charter schools in the state. In the Denver Metro Area, 20% of all charter students receive about 90% of all philanthropic support.

  • In Colorado, philanthropic dollars comprise just 2.6% of total revenue for charter schools. In the Denver Metro Area, philanthropic dollars comprise only .3% of total revenue for charter schools.

Now, it is true that a relative handful of charters pull in much more philanthropic money than others. And hey, maybe a very small number of those are doing just fine thanks to philanthropic donations. On the whole, though, there’s no substance to the argument that charters in general do not need or deserve more equitable funding because of philanthropic money.

Every public school student should be funded equitably regardless of which public school he or she chooses to attend, and not just because this report debunks one of the most common arguments against such funding. It’s simply the right thing to do.

See you next time!