Charter schools received, on average, 30% less in funding than traditional public schools — or $7,147 less per pupil — during the 2019-20 school year, according to a study of charter schools across 18 major cities and 16 states released Wednesday.
The funding disparity has remained relatively stable, with charters getting 33% less funding than traditional schools in 2017-18, for example, said the report from the University of Arkansas' School Choice Demonstration Project.
Researchers found the disparity to be driven primarily by inequitable local funding rather than state and federal funding. Differences in student need — such as more money allocated for students with disabilities — explain about 70% of the funding disparity, however.
Traditional public schools tend to enroll higher proportions of students with disabilities than do charter schools, requiring additional spending, according to previous research from the School Choice Demonstration Project. Yet "a sizable gap remains even when we control for student need," researchers wrote in the latest report.
Local funding for the charters and traditional public schools in 18 cities showed an average disparity of $8,094 per charter school student. By contrast, states funded charters at almost $360 less on average per pupil, and the federal government provided $721 less on average per pupil.
While studies have pointed to charter school benefits including better student academic performance and preparedness for the unexpected COVID-19 shutdowns, scrutiny persists over how charters spend their money.
A Government Accountability Office report released in October showed many states and charter management organizations had unspent federal funds they had committed to using for opening or expanding 1,570 charter schools between 2013 and 2016. States opened or expanded less than half of the total 1,076 they had promised.
Another GAO report released that month showed 14% of schools that received federal charter funds through Charter Schools Program State awards — the largest CSP grant program — closed or never opened between 2006 and 2020.
The Biden administration last year also finalized rules making it harder for charters to expand or to tap into federal funding compared to policies under previous administrations.