Source: CT State Department of Education (Edsight), 2016.
As a session dedicated to writing the biennial budget, the 2017 legislative session will likely feature discussions of the State’s funding of public schools and charter schools. The rhetoric and propaganda will heat up, so it will be important to understand key facts about public schools compared to privately-managed charter schools in Connecticut. The most important fact to remember will be that most students in public schools get substantially less per-pupil funding from the State of Connecticut than students in privately-managed charter schools.
Public schools are accountable to the public and funded through a combination of local, State, and federal funds, in many cases.
Although providing public education is the responsibility of the State, this responsibility has been delegated to local, democratically elected school boards with the exception of Black and Latinx Hartford and New Haven, which have a majority of mayoral appointees. Funding of public schools in Connecticut is a shared responsibility too.
Towns and cities collect revenue mostly through property taxes and large shares of the total go to fund the local public schools. While some towns pay for local public schools almost entirely through local funds (Westport = 96% local funds), some towns rely heavily on State funding (Bridgeport – 20% local funds, 70% State funds). On average, towns and cities paid for public schools with 66% local funding and 29% State funding in 2013-14. The remaining small share is from public federal and private sources of funding.
When it works as intended, public schools are ultimately accountable to local citizens that vote for members of their school board who govern the schools and budgets that go towards their local schools. This arrangement ensures mostly local control of schools to implement the State (legislature/governor) obligation of a public education.
The State helps towns/cities pay for public education primarily through the Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) grant that varies by town/city need and ability to pay for public schools.
In the 1970’s, many courts around the country found that funding schools only on property taxes was regressive. In other words, towns with greater property wealth were able to tax at lower rates compared to towns with lower property wealth, which had to levy taxes at higher rates. Therefore, property-rich towns, which often had less need, were able to fund their schools more adequately with far less effort.
For instance, the Horton v. Meskill case in Connecticut found this funding arrangement unconstitutional and the State of Connecticut responded by funding a grant to help towns and cities to pay for public schools in addition to the local revenue (e.g. property taxes). Today, that system is called the Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) grant. The idea was to “equalize’ funding for public education so that per-pupil funding in various towns did not vary too greatly.
Today the ECS grant is somewhat progressive, or, in other words, towns/cities with higher need and less ability to pay get a larger grant from the State to help fund schools in addition to local funds. This “cost-sharing” means that both local and State funds pay for public schools in addition to federal funds that make up a larger share in urban districts.
ECS grants to towns range widely because the amount was historically based on need and ability to paid. The grant has never been “fully” funded, so to speak. Although the formula to allocate ECS grants is relatively progressive, it has rarely been implemented as written because funding depends on compromises in the legislature and Governor’s office. The ECS grant has been frozen in many cases, while in some cases the ECS grant was reduced as the State imposes financial austerity in Connecticut. My former CT Voices for Children colleague, Orlando Rodriguez, analyzed the problems with the ECS a few years ago. In practice, the ECS grant is a “block” grant rather than a per-pupil grant. But we can find an average per-pupil grant fairly easily. ($ ECS grant / # student in district)
In general, towns and cities with greater need and less ability to pay through local property taxes get a larger ECS grant when broken down on an average or per pupil basis. In 2013-14, Bridgeport’s average, or per-pupil, ECS State grant was $8,388, Hartford’s $9,276, and New Haven was $7,061. The average, per pupil State ECS grant to all towns and cities for public schools was $4,195 in 2013-14.
Because privately-managed charter schools are not accountable to the public in local towns and cities, the State, not local taxpayers, provides a grant of roughly $11,000 per student to operate and subsidize privately-managed charter schools. Charter schools also receive federal and private funds.
Charter schools in Connecticut are privately-managed schools that are considered separate school districts from the public school districts in the same towns and cities. So Achievement First-Bridgeport is a separate school district from the Bridgeport Public Schools, for example. The former is operated by a private, non-profit corporation called Achievement First, Inc. with an appointed board of directors and the latter is operated by the democratically-elected board of education of Bridgeport citizens.
While charter school advocates would argue that charter schools in Connecticut are public, they operate more like private schools that get public dollars. Charter schools are not accountable to the public in the same ways as charter schools. For this and other reasons, the NAACP, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Journey for Justice civil rights organizations have called for a moratorium on charter schools and other forms of privatization.
In 2015-16, the State spent $11,000 per student at every charter school in the State. (In 2013-14, this amount was $10,500.) With about 8,018 students in all charter schools (CT Mirror), the total State funding of State charter schools was $88,198,000. By comparison, the New Britain Public Schools had more than 10,071 students, but received the basic ECS grant that totaled $85 million from the State, a per pupil (average) grant of $8,804. (Math: New Britain ECS grant $88,661,444 / # of students 10,071). The New Britain school district has roughly the same rate of low-income families, slightly fewer children of color, more students with disabilities, and emerging bilingual students than the average charter school. In other words, New Britain may have greater needs as a district than the charter school sector overall, but gets a smaller per-pupil base ECS grant on average from the State.
This pattern where charter school students get more in basic State funding than students in public school districts from the ECS grant is almost universal.
2013-14 State ECS/Charter Grant – Per-Pupil
This situation happens because privately-managed charter schools operate outside of local and public accountability and funding, so the State must subsidize these schools at a much higher rate than local public schools in every other town and city. In short, the State created semi-private schools that do not operate within the educational cost sharing framework of the town and State sharing the costs of public schools. The State created these semi-private charter schools in the name of “choice”, “innovation”, “achievement”, etc. And now the State has an inefficient private-public charter school funding system that costs much more for the State than funding the educational cost sharing (ECS) grant for students in any other type of traditional public school.
In sum, the State spends more on an average, or per pupil, basis on students in privately-managed charter schools compared to students in most other public school districts because the State assumes almost the whole cost of students attending charter schools. Because charters are not accountable to the local public, they do not receive funds from local taxpayers and school boards (except for special education and transportation). Traditional school districts get less per-pupil from the State on average compared to charter schools and have greater responsibilities in terms of educating students. Local taxpayers help fund the gap between what the State sends for their public schools and what they actually cost.
The State provides other grants to local public school districts in addition to the ECS grant because local public school districts have more responsibilities that charter schools do not. For example, public school districts are required to provide special education services and transportation, including for students at adjacent charter schools. Even accounting for these other grants in addition to the ECS grant, the State often still sends more funds on a per-pupil basis for privately-managed charter schools than most other types of local public schools. More skilled analysis of spending comparisons show that charter schools and local public schools spend comparable amounts on a per-pupil basis, which I will take up in a future post.
Despite these facts, the charter school lobby has done a very effective job at arguing that charter school students get less per-pupil funding. This claim ignores that facts that charter schools get more from on a per-pupil basis from the State, public schools have greater responsibilities to a broader group of students, and it hides the fact that charter schools do not get local funding from town and city taxpayers because they are not accountable to that local public.
So when somebody tries to sell you on the claim that charter schools get less funding per pupil from the State than public schools. Don’t buy it.