As students in Phoenix and across the country continue to reel from the effects of the Covid pandemic, there has been a lot of conversation about the importance of students receiving the education funding they need. By March 2021, the federal government had committed an unprecedented $190 billion in extra funds to public schools—but by most measures, students are still far behind their pre-pandemic performance.
This all raises a critical question: are students getting the resources they need to put pandemic learning loss in their rearview mirror and motor ahead to a successful life?
Unfortunately, for Phoenix students, the answer depends on what kind of public school they attend. Since 2003, researchers at the University of Arkansas have been studying how charter schools in major US cities are funded relative to traditional public schools. And in our newest report released last month we found that in the 2019-20 school year Phoenix charter schools received $1,704 less per-pupil funding than traditional public schools obtained. That means that if a student chooses to attend a charter school, they, on average, sacrifice 14.7% of their funding. This is a smaller gap than we found in 2017-18, when it was 23.4%. If policymakers are serious about giving all public-school students the resources they need, they should build on this progress and continue to work to close this gap.
Our team reviewed official school district and state budget documents to capture every dollar flowing to schools, including local, state, federal, non-public and in-kind services. Across all the cities studied, we< found that charter schools received, on average, 30% less funding—$7,147 less per student—than their traditional public-school counterparts. This charter school funding gap has been fairly stable in recent years. For instance, in the 2017-18 school year the gap was 33% and in 2015-16 it was 30%. One might assume that this gap is explained by differences in student need—that charter schools serve fewer students who require additional resources, including students in poverty, English Language Learners, and special education students. But when we controlled for student need, a sizable gap remained. In Phoenix, there are several contributors to the gap. Phoenix charter schools received zero dollars of local funding, and also received less non-public funding—shattering the myth that charter schools always benefit more from philanthropy. As part of the report, we assigned A-F grades to each of the 18 cities. Phoenix earned a “C.” Clearly, there is a need to improve. The ultimate goal is not funding but better outcomes for students. And what’s remarkable is that, despite this funding inequity, charter schools are performing better than traditional public schools. According to recent research from Stanford University, charter school students had reading and math gains that exceeded their peers in the traditional public school they would have attended; Black and Hispanic students and students experiencing poverty had particularly large gains. That is also the case in many charter schools in Phoenix. For instance, BASIS Charter Schools consistently ranks among the best high schools in the United States.
Other research has found that, relative to similar students in traditional public schools, charter school students graduate high school at higher rates, enroll in college at higher rates, and have better behavioral outcomes.
Research also indicates that when traditional public schools face additional charter school competition, their students achieve better outcomes. This competitive effect is especially strong in urban areas with large concentrations of Black and Hispanic students and students in poverty.
We should all be able to agree that our public education system ought to give every student–regardless of the type of school they attend–resources they need to have a great education and reach their potential. This research shows that Phoenix has significant work yet to do to equitably fund its public charter schools.