Published on Monday, September 14 on www.MyStatesman.com.
By Paul Sadler and Denise Pierce
We agree with the overall conclusion of the recent Statesman editorial about the school finance litigation before the state Supreme Court, but we take issue with the specifics regarding public charter schools and facilities funding. The inclusion of charters in the legal discourse is historic, as no previous suit on this thorny issue has contemplated the constitutionality of public charter school funding. Public charter schools didn’t exist when the early suits were filed claiming Texas underfunds its schools.
The Texas constitution makes it clear the state legislature must establish and provide for an “efficient system of public free schools.” Today, and for the past twenty years, that system includes both traditional and public charter schools. Although the paper contends (as the lower court ruled) that charters are somehow an exclusive creation of the legislature, the fact is both types of public schools are subject to state oversight and funding.
Public charter schools are required to meet the same state and federal education standards as traditional school districts. They are subject to the same academic and financial accountability requirements. Recent legislatures have raised the bar for charter school performance, higher than their district counterparts, even as lawmakers consistently fail to close the funding gap.
The constitutional standard for free public schools doesn’t change when the student of a traditional public school chooses instead to attend a charter school. Yet the funding amount for that student does change. According to the state’s evidence, charter students receive on average $1,000 less than their peers in traditional districts. This gap in state funding forces many charters to divert instructional dollars meant for the classroom to facilities and operations.
This court case is not about esoteric legal theory – the money gap truly impacts the teaching and learning happening in charters all across the state. For some schools it means converting a hallway into a science lab or making a closet into practice space for music. Then there are the charter school students playing soccer in a concrete retaining pond. The growing demand for charters also increases the strain on their facilities. While converting offices into classrooms is a sign of success, it is also an indication of a funding system that is broken for charters.
The House committee that rewrote the Education Code in 1995 worked in a bipartisan fashion to authorize the charter school program. There was no “bargain” regarding facilities funding. Urban legend suggests a wink and a nod from lawmakers gave charters flexibility in exchange for zero facilities funding. It’s not true. The charter law was meant to encourage innovation and make strides in educating our children, not to save money by denying some public students the rights others enjoy.
There is also no funding deal mentioned in the agreement between the state and charter schools. And even if there was, the nearly 230,000 students and families that depend on charters did not sign a contract. The constitution guarantees their right to public schools that provide a “general diffusion of knowledge.” To do this, public charters must be fairly funded. And according to the Edgewood IV school finance decision, an efficient public education system must include instruction and facilities funding.
Zero facilities funding equals less money in the classroom, because the current school funding system forces charter schools to cannibalize their instructional budgets to pay for a school roof. For the 45 charter schools in the Austin area and the more than 12,900 students enrolled in them, this diversion of funds creates a unique constitutional violation. Yet even with this disparity there are at least 1,900 students on waiting lists to attend a charter in the Capitol city. Austin charter school enrollment has grown more than 25% for each of the last four years.
Many of these students are from underserved families, and they certainly deserve a school funding system that does not discriminate against public charter school students!
Despite the Statesman Editorial Board’s disappointing charter school conclusion, all Texas students and families deserve a public education system that doesn’t divert instructional funding to pay for classroom walls. We call upon the state Supreme Court justices to send a clear message to the legislature on behalf of public charter school students: Close the funding gap and treat all public schools fairly.
Paul Sadler is the former chair of the House Public Education Committee and co-author of the Education Code rewrite in 1995, which authorized the charter school program in Texas. Denise Pierce is the Texas Charter Schools Association’s general counsel and litigator in the current school finance lawsuit argued before the state Supreme Court.