Ohio’s dual system of publicly funded schools

I prefer to ignore charter schools. I know good people who work in them and use them. Charters don’t appear to have much to do with my school district. How much good can they do? How much harm?   
Reports of fraud, profiteering and failure pushed me to learn more. Because charter schools are funded with public funds, I thought I would go to the heart of the matter and “follow the money.” I turned to Bill Phillis, a longtime advocate of reforming school funding in Ohio, for an explanation of the system that now uses state tax dollars to fund two different kinds of public schools. I am troubled by what I learned.
The Ohio Constitution requires the state to provide all children a thorough and efficient education. In carrying out that responsibility, the state legislature funds and regulates schools. In 1998 the legislature created “community schools,” its name for charters, and began a dual system of publicly funded schools with major differences in funding, regulation and oversight. Today there are more than 390 charters in Ohio, using close to $1 billion in state funding.  
The funding mechanism is costly to traditional public schools. Public resources flow from schools that are governed by an elected school board—and are expected to adhere to state regulations covering financial oversight, teacher qualification and accountability, and educational programs—to loosely governed and deregulated charter schools.
Each year, the legislature determines the funding level for charter students and those in traditional public schools. According to a 2013 Department of Education report, the funding level for every charter student was set at $5,732. By contrast, state funding for traditional public school students is specific to the school district they attend, based on the property wealth of each district. Because I live in the Cleveland Heights–University Heights City School District, I thought I’d focus on its funding. According to CH-UH treasurer Scott Gainer, our per-pupil allocation in 2012–13 was $1,741, or just 30 percent of the amount promised to charter students.  
Not only do charter students receive more state funds than their public school peers, but the difference comes out of the per-pupil contributions for public school students. This is how it works. The state creates a pot of money for each school district that will pay for both charter and traditional students who reside in that district. While the state promised $5,732 to charter students living in Cleveland Heights, it put only $1,741 in the pot for each of those students. This is the same amount that is added to the pot for each of the 5,787 public school students who live in the district.
When it is time to pay for charter students, the state subtracts the guaranteed amount—$5,732—for each student and sends it to their charter school. Public school kids get what is left. The $4,000 shortfall for each charter student comes out of what was put in the pot for the public school students. In 2012–13, about $2.5 million was sent to pay for 371 Heights charter school students, even though they brought only 30 percent of that money into the pot. In effect, traditional public school students subsidize 70 percent of the cost of charter school students.
To add insult to injury, once the money passes out of public hands to the charter, there is no elected school board to be held accountable for how it is used. 
The state legislature has been loath to increase resources for its public schools, but when it comes to charter schools they do not hold back, at a sizeable reduction to local school district budgets. How does that make public schools better? 
As I see it, the legislature has created a dual system for delivering education. Those systems receive different levels of state support, operate with different expectations, and are governed by different rules. Charter schools—no matter their quality—operate without adequate safeguards to protect public funds and undermine authentic public schools by draining away resources and children. This is wrong.
Ohio’s charter schools are not harmless. The system encourages waste through inefficiency and lax oversight. Creating two systems that follow dramatically different rules makes no sense. It endangers public education, violates public trust and undermines education pursued as a common good.
Our elected officials need to end their reckless use of public resources and fulfill their obligation to create an effective system of common schools, the bedrock institution of our democracy.
I am glad I finally decided to learn more.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

Read More on The Common Good
Volume 7, Issue 1, Posted 10:40 AM, 12.17.2013