Driving to Deliver Charter Equity
March 30, 2018

As champions for kids across the nation continue to work to expand educational options for families, many have identified charter school equity issues as priorities in 2018. Charter schools are often forced to operate at a much lower funding level than traditional public schools, facing an average disparity in per-pupil funding of 29 percent in metropolitan areas.

This funding gap, coupled with the fact that traditional districts often control access to public school buildings, means that many charter operators fall back on a “patchwork of solutions” to cover their operating costs, find adequate school facilities, and transport students. Though long-term, system-wide solutions have so far been out of reach in many states, some advocates are finding success by tackling charter equity challenges one piece at a time.

While we wait to see how this year’s legislative sessions shake out, we’re looking back on key 2017 victories for charter facilities, funding, and transportation. Leaders in Arkansas, Colorado, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. shared messaging tactics that helped make their wins possible, and updated us on continued progress.

Arkansas: Sharing the Truth about Facilities Access

Public charter schools in Arkansas have faced extensive challenges in relation to facilities access, but continued advocacy from Arkansas Learns has helped to lessen the burden. In 2015, Arkansas Learns, in collaboration with the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, helped to secure charter facilities funding from the state for the first time, and in 2017, they successfully ensured that all public schools, including charters, have a right of access to unused or underutilized public school facilities. Though charter schools already had right of first refusal on public school property up for sale, charter school operators were meeting resistance from some Arkansas school districts selling vacant buildings.

According to Gary Newton, president and CEO of Arkansas Learns, their key strategy for supporting the 2017 legislation was “simply sharing the truth—including the actions of bad actor school districts.” This included pulling buildings from the market when districts discovered a charter school was interested, districts setting restrictive covenants that barred future sales to charter schools, and one district even letting a tree grow through an abandoned, vandalized school building rather than sell to a charter.

Per the 2017 legislation, districts were required to report unused or underutilized property by March 1, 2018. This deadline yielded an incredible inventory of taxpayer-owned assets, including more than 200 buildings and pieces of property owned by 76 school districts, all identified by the state for the first time as vacant or underused.

“While the status quo tried to paint this as a charter school land grab, it has proven to be a long overdue dose of transparency for Arkansas’s school districts and their stewardship of the public’s resources,” Newton said.

DC: Fighting for Both Charter Funding and Per-Pupil Funding

In 2017, DFER District of Columbia and PAVE helped achieve a 2.2 percent annual increase to the charter facilities allotment, pledged for four years, in addition to a 3 percent universal increase to per-pupil funding. According to Catharine Bellinger, director of DFER DC, they focused on elite negotiation and grasstops influencers to secure the annual four-year increase. Advocates were concerned that Mayor Muriel Bowser might not be willing to fund both a per-pupil funding increase and a facilities funding increase, so the coalition also launched a huge, cross-sector grassroots push for increasing per-pupil funding. This included a significant investment in Phone2Action, smaller investments in digital and paid media, and organizing parents to to testify at city council budget hearings.

Earlier this month, Mayor Bowser released her FY2019 budget proposal, including the promised 2.2 percent increase to the charter facilities allotment, and a higher-than-expected 3.9 percent increase to per-pupil funding. In addition, the mayor’s proposal committed an additional $9.6 million for Out of School Time (OST) funding, thanks in part to a sustained advocacy campaign led by PAVE and also including DFER DC.

“We think all these tactics helped us achieve our wins in 2017 while also flexing our advocacy muscle, which helped secure a 3.9 percent per pupil increase this year for the FY19 budget,” Bellinger said. Though advocates will continue working to defend that proposed increase to ensure the Council fully funds it, they’re optimistic about the final result.

“The power built by the advocacy coalition we put together last year was instrumental in securing another large increase this year, as well as an increase in vital OST funding,” added Kerry Savage, PAVE policy analyst.

Colorado: Focusing on Equal Access to Local Funding

Advocates in Colorado also helped achieve a major funding equity win last year by sticking to a main message: all public school students deserve equal access to public resources. Network members Colorado Succeeds, DFER Colorado, ReadyCO, and Stand for Children Colorado were part of a broad, balanced coalition that worked to ensure charter schools receive their fair share of local funding. HB17-1375 equalized funding for district-authorized charter schools, and also established a fund for state-authorized charters to receive an equivalent amount.

The Colorado legislature’s Joint Budget Committee recently allocated money for the fund, which was “an important step in fulfilling the promises made in HB17-1375,” said Luke Ragland, president of ReadyCO. In addition, school districts are already beginning to work to align their charter policies to make sure every public school student, charter or traditional, receives equal access to local tax revenue.

“By staying true to our policy North Star, we’ve been able to keep progress moving in the right direction,” Ragland said.

North Carolina: Equity Concerns Propel Transportation Pilot

Equity was the key driver in messaging a first-of-its-kind charter school transportation bill to North Carolina legislators during the 2017 session. HB 644 established the Charter School Transportation Grant Pilot Program to fund up to 65 percent of student transportation costs for charter schools where at least half of students qualify for federal free or reduced lunch.

Implementation of the grant program is running smoothly so far, and charter school operators have testified to the legislature’s Education Oversight Committee about their new ability to reach more students due to these grants, said Marcus Brandon, executive director of NorthCarolinaCAN. Initial delays in the application and grant award process were addressed by transferring grant administration from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to the Department of Transportation.

According to Brandon, the grant program is a small but important step toward a larger goal. Like other advocates for charter equity, he hopes to continue building on this win in order to reduce charter school access barriers for more students and families.

To connect with advocates working on equity for charter students, reach out.

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