Charter Schools Funding Gap Bigger Than Reported

Yesterday I dedicated this week’s column to a stall in both momentum and political will to fully implement school choice in Georgia.  Today I’d like to focus on one bill – House Bill 430 – to explain why the gap between traditional local schools and public charter schools is even larger than is usually discussed. This bill was passed into law last year, but an appropriation under this bill to provide for facility costs has yet to be made.

Charter Schools currently receive the state portion of funding per student that is based on the QBE formula. As we noted yesterday, State Charter Commission Schools receive the allotment that would be provided to the five poorest districts, not the state average nor the equivalent of what the local district would receive for that child.  That, in itself, is inequitable.

It’s is noted that the child doesn’t receive the contribution that local boards make to fill in the funding gap.  This would be the operating money from property taxes.  Charter Schools get none of this.

Left out of most funding discussions is that most counties in Georgia have E-SPLOSTs to pay for facilities.  Charter Schools have the one bucket of money – the one that is supposed to be used on children in the classroom – to spend on the physical classrooms as well.

Ehab Jaleel is the Executive Director of Amana Academy, which is the only STEM certified middle school in Fulton County.  STEM education isn’t cheap.  But even the basics of a roof over the kids head must be paid for.  Jaleel penned an Op-Ed in the Hearld Newspaper of North Fulton explaining the plight.

Like most public charter schools in Georgia, Amana Academy has to pay all its own facilities costs. That means we had to lease and purchase our own building — and in North Fulton real estate is not cheap. Our yearly facilities expense amounts to $1,000 per child, which has to come straight out of our operating budget. In the meantime, traditional schools get to invest that same amount into their educational program. Charters were also left out of millions of dollars in SPLOST funding, so zero funds go to renovate our building or add technology. This is especially challenging given that district charter contracts require charter schools like mine to outperform traditional schools if we want to remain open.

Against these odds, Amana Academy has become the only STEM certified middle school in our county. That’s because we put every available dollar into the classroom. But the lack of money for facilities and maintenance has taken its toll. Right now, we can afford to pay our mortgage payments; and as part of our bond agreement we are required to have 30 days cash-on-hand. However, once we pay mortgage-related expenses, educator salaries and curriculum related costs, there is nothing left for facilities upgrades. At the moment, our 30-year-old roof needs to be replaced. That means every time it rains, there are leaks throughout the building. We would love to be able use a portion of our funding to fix the roof and improve our physical space, but nearly all of our money goes to educational resources.

Clearly, the funding we’re devoting to education is working ─ our middle schoolers are outperforming 99 percent of their peers across the county and the state; we are among the top 5 percent of Title 1 schools in Georgia; and we are the first K-8 school to earn STEM Certification from the Georgia Department of Education. In fact, we were recently awarded a Technology Association of Georgia STEM Education Award for our Certified STEM School Outreach efforts. That means both traditional and charter public schools throughout the state are coming to us to learn how to become STEM Certified. Imagine what else we could do for students and our community if we could put all of our operating funds into the classroom, instead of funneling $1,000 per student into our facility every year!

This problem is faced by all of Georgia’s Charter Schools. Even Georgia’s virtual schools have the same capital dilemma. (Reminder/disclaimer – I am on the board of a Georgia virtual charter school). Our school doesn’t have a fixed classroom but we do have capital costs. We supply our students with a computer for their studies. Thus, we don’t have a building that can be amortized over 30 years, but instead have computers that must be replaced/upgraded every couple of years.

The point is this: Capital costs are not free and do not magically appear with the granting of a Charter. Instead the costs of capital needs are met out of the per pupil grant based on QBE – that is a dollar amount only meant to fund PART of the operating expense of educating a student.

Last year the state legislature overwhelmingly passed HB 430 as a way to start closing the gap by providing charter schools the ability to cover at least part of their capital expenses each year. But, while it is in law, until it is funded it is merely words on a sheet of paper.

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