State officials are working on how to adjust how charter schools are funded in the final days of the legislative session, bringing discussion on the need for equal funding between charter and public schools.
With a perceived inequality regarding funding for district schools and charter schools, based on the fact that charter schools are funded on their Oct. 1 Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU) in comparison to district schools, which are funded by their average daily membership, both charter schools and district schools want to see change — an equalization in the amount of funding provided by the state.
A change in funding
Next year, charter schools will shift to funding through average daily membership WPU: This will count all of the students in membership from the prior year and sets an amount of guaranteed funding received from the state.
The concern about shifting charter schools to average daily membership WPU is the inequality resulting based on the amount of students. Senate Bill 38 aims to equalize that funding as “for each student enrolled in a charter school on the previous Oct. 1, (it will) calculate the district per pupil local revenues of the school district in which the student resides.”
According to Marlies Burns, executive director for the State Charter School Board, charter schools have historically been funded Oct. 1, which causes the funding to vary significantly between schools. In some areas of the state, Burns said, charter schools receive more per pupil funding while in other areas of the state, they receive significantly less.
“It depends whether or not the value of taxes collected by the district is greater or less than the value of the local replacement dollar,” Burns said.
District schools support the upcoming change in funding, but want transparency regarding the local replacement fund: 25 percent of a public school district’s “district average per pupil revenue,” based on charter school enrollment, goes to support local charter schools to support “charter school local replacement.”
“Charter schools get the WPU and funding from the state level the same as district schools,” Logan City School District Business Administrator Jeff Barben said. “They have a local replacement. We get funds from local taxes. The local replacement will replace what we get by levying taxes.”
As charter schools and district schools share some of the same activities or facilities, this is a transparency issue, Logan City School District Superintendent Frank Schofield said. If there was something on a person’s property tax that showed how much and where their taxes go, taxpayers would be more aware regarding how much tax goes to charter schools.
“It creates other conversations because that dollar amount in our situation is likely to be a number that people would say ‘I’ve got this much money going to charter schools and this amount going to public schools,’ then people will start to ask questions,” Schofield said. “It allows us to tell people, ‘Here’s how we use your tax dollars.’”
Every school district levies a different tax rate. The state pays 75 percent of its local replacement dollars to charter schools, while local districts pay 25 percent of that amount. According to Barben, $310,422 was the Logan district’s 25 percent of the local replacement fund.
For the Cache County School District, that number was $232,206, according to Business Administrator Dale Hansen. These numbers are based on the number of students and they pay 25 percent of the local replacement funds that pay for students to go for charter schools.
The Utah Legislature is in the process of adjusting this transparency and increasing the funding for charter schools, with SB38, based on the switch charter schools will make from the Oct. 1 count to average daily membership WPU. Oct. 1 funding has been viewed unfairly because a charter school will receive funding based on the count for one day, versus a district school receives funding for average daily membership plus growth. The legislative bill’s purpose is to even out the funding once charter schools switch to average daily membership.
An upside to average daily membership funding is student retention at charter schools, InTech Collegiate High School Principal Jason Stanger said.
“It (average daily membership funding) encourages charter schools to do things to retain students,” Stanger said. “It encourages us to provide better services, good marketing up front — telling people ‘this is what we are, this is what we do,’ making sure people make an informed decision as they come into a charter school.”
Cache Valley’s charter schools are unique in how they tailor to individual student needs, and all charter schools are designed to offer special curated curricula. According to the Utah State Office of Education, “They allow educators freedom to try new strategies to inspire students and to experiment with innovative ways of educating students.”
Despite their unique curricula based on their type of charter, these schools are still public schools, and it is often a misconception that charter schools are private schools, Shem Smith, the assistant principal at Thomas Edison Charter School, said.
“Some people have a misunderstanding that charter schools are private schools,” Smith said. “We cannot screen our applicants which means we take everyone just like a public school does, and we don’t have tuition. So we are free public education just like public schools.”
Day in the life of a charter school
Walking through the hallways of Thomas Edison Charter School-South in Nibley, one might instantly notice the student dress code: a solid color collared shirt paired with solid color pants or a skirt.
“There is courtesy and respect,” said Leica Merriam, a special education aide for the school. “I love the dress code. It levels the playing field. If kids are dressed neatly, they perform better.”
Like the four other operating charter schools in Cache County, both the north and south divisions of Thomas Edison Charter School aim to educate their students in a more individualized, flexible learning environment, tailoring to the needs of their pupils. In Dane Hepworth’s seventh-grade science class, students are learning about the biological organization levels from cells to the organism they compose.
Hepworth’s teaching method — a powerpoint lecture followed by students breaking off into groups to classify items into cells, tissues, organs, organ systems and organisms, had the competence and structure like any public school class, pushing students to excel in a strong learning environment.
The structure of charter schools can be compared to the structure of an organism, per Hepworth’s lesson:
“Each of the pieces of a charter school are, you could say, an organ that function in their own way, but work together to make the whole the best place possible,” Hepworth said. “The atmosphere here, which I would call the homeostatic atmosphere, is amazing, and in order to maintain that portion, the science, the English, the literature, the math, all of us have to work together.
He continued, “So, as we do our part in our areas and work together and talk about students’ needs, it all comes together and we’re actually happier as a result.”
Hepworth’s comparison of a charter school to an organism ultimately justifies the reason many parents choose to send their child to a charter school. Interest in charter schools is growing, and some parents seek out the individualized or tailored curricula most Cache Valley charter schools offer, feeling their child will reap the benefits of a rigorous, yet small environment.
“When I went in and looked at Thomas Edison Charter School-North, I was really impressed with what they were doing,” said Hisako Kure, a parent with two boys at the North Logan school. “In the atmosphere, everyone was happy.”
Kure’s two boys, same as students in other charter schools, went through a lottery process to attend Thomas Edison-North, the biggest differentiation between a charter school and a public school per the opinion of Dan Johnson, director of the Edith Bowen Laboratory School. If a student does not get into their desired charter school during the lottery process, they are kept on the school’s list. When a spot opens up, charter schools reach out to the students to fill that spot immediately so their funding can stay consistent.
“A lot of charter schools out there have charter, they have a mission, and I think they are competitive from the standpoint that they want their purposes to be met,” Johnson said. “They might feel like they’re providing education in a certain way: their philosophy, their belief system...”
Charter schools have accountability just like public schools, said Melani Kirk, the principal for Thomas Edison Charter School-South. A shared mission of many is to fill the needs of the educational community and provide alternative options for parents and students while exhibiting high test scores and strong learning improvements.
At Bear River Charter School, 180 students in kindergarten through eighth grade receive what the school markets as “an outstanding educational and social experience,” said Janet Adams, the director of Bear River Charter School. Adams said the school thrives in a partnership with Stokes Nature Center, which provides outdoor science activities for the students. Last week, students went snowshoeing at the nature center.
Juxtaposing the luxuries providing field trips and individualized learning, Cache Valley charter schools struggle with maintaining and acquiring more resources.
“Because we are small, we are still expected to follow all the same programs and mandates that a larger school does, but our resources are a little more limited because of our small size,” Adams said.
Governed by local autonomy, many charter schools have a governing board made up of parents and other representatives that meet once a month. Thomas Edison-North and Thomas Edison-South have governing boards with some elected and some appointed positions, Shem Smith, from Thomas Edison-South said. The boards are composed of three subcommittees: finance, achievement academics and policy making.
The future of charter schools
As of Friday, March 4, SB38 is in its fourth substitute with the expectation of being finalized in the near future. The bill intends to redefine district local property tax revenues and would “amend provisions that require a school district to allocate a certain portion of school district tax revenues for charter schools.”
The bill’s newest substitute would distribute millions of dollars in funding to charter schools, and also strives for transparency, as the local replacement funds would be noticed, established as a line item for charter schools on property taxes.
Cache County School District Superintendent Steve Norton said he has dedicated most of his career to examining equity and funding. He is all in favor of anything that brings charter school funding up to par with district school funding, he said.
“I’ve championed for equity and equality. I did like the fact they funded them originally just on the Oct. 1 tab,” Norton said. “But after Oct. 1, if a student left, it’s not a fair system.”
Although charter schools are set up differently from district schools, they are not much different in character, Norton said.
“They are public schools in the state of Utah. They’re parental choice in a school that fits a little niche,” he said.
Cache County School District chartered InTech Collegiate High School, Norton added.
Johnson, from Edith Bowen Laboratory School, who spent the first 42 years of his career working in public education and the last five years working at the Edith Bowen Laboratory School said any school wants to provide their students with technology, opportunities for field trips, etc. Any money the schools can receive to improve their opportunities for student learning would be beneficial.
“I can speak for public schools. I can speak for charter schools,” Johnson said. “We all have really good intentions about trying to take that money and improve opportunities for student learning. Any resources we can get that way, that’s what we’re going to spend it on.”