While Governor Gavin Newsom has touted how he has increased state education funding during his tenure, charter schools have seen less funding compared to regular public schools, with the gap widening in places like Los Angeles.
A new study by the University of Arkansas analyzes the funding disparity between charter schools and their regular public school counterparts in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
In the mid-2010s, California implemented a new state education funding mechanism called the Local Control Funding Formula, which sought to equalize funding for both charter and regular public schools throughout the state.
The LCFF required that every regular public school and charter receive a minimum amount of funds per pupil, which was then weighted by student needs and grade level.
Despite its pretense to equalize funding, when the LCFF took effect in 2015-16, regular public schools in LAUSD received 22 percent more funding per pupil than the district’s charter schools, when totaling together state, local, federal, and other funds.
Although an improvement over the pre-LCFF 40 percent gap in 2013-14, it still meant that LAUSD regular public schools in 2015-16 received $3,826 more total funding per pupil than Los Angeles charter schools.
After Gavin Newsom took office after the 2018 election, he significantly increased state education funding to schools.
By 2019-20, state funding of schools under Proposition 98 increased to $81.6 billion, which was a $12.5 billion rise over the $69.1 billion spent in 2015-16.
Yet, despite this increase in state spending on schools, the funding gap between regular public schools and charters widened.
The University of Arkansas researchers found that the 22-percent gap in 2015-16 increased to a 27-percent gap in 2019-20, which meant that LAUSD regular public schools were receiving $5,225 more total per-pupil funding than charter schools in the district.
What makes this huge gap so shocking is that the types of students served by both LAUSD regular public schools and the city’s charter schools are virtually the same.
Both types of schools enroll nearly the same proportions of low-income students, English language learners, non-white students, foster children, and special education students.
Despite the wide disparity in funding, the study points out that students at Los Angeles charter schools perform better than their regular public school peers in LAUSD.
According to the University of Arkansas researchers: “Two studies have looked at Southern California, a region that includes Los Angeles and San Diego. These studies found that, after controlling for student demographics, charter schools in these areas on average produce significantly higher annual test score growth than [traditional public schools].”
The United Teachers of Los Angeles union, an implacable foe of charter schools, should take note of another of the study’s important points: “Research indicates that when [traditional public schools] face additional charter school competition, their students achieve better outcomes,” and this competitive effect “is especially strong in urban areas with large concentrations of Black and Hispanic students and students in poverty, where there is some evidence that charter sector growth has helped narrow historic opportunity gaps.”
One of the reasons that charter schools perform better than regular public schools, despite less funding, is because charters funnel a greater proportion of their funding into the classroom. If there was greater equality of funding, and if charters continued to direct their dollars into the classroom rather than into bureaucracy, then it is possible that charter performance could actually increase even more.
Given this possibility, Prof. Patrick Wolf, one of the co-authors of the University of Arkansas study, says: “This is another wake-up call for state and local policymakers to develop more equitable school funding solutions. Closing the funding gap can help all schools deliver on the promise of a high-quality education for every student.” That is good advice that leaders in Sacramento should take to heart.
Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of the PRI book Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children.