In Historic Win, Charters Getting State Funding for Facilities for First Time

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Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

Children from charter and private schools all over Texas turned out for the 85th legislative session's National School Choice Rally on Jan. 24, 2017.

For the first time in Texas, public charter schools will receive state funding to pay for leasing and maintaining buildings and facilities – expanding their access to the State's limited money for public schools.

In August, the Legislature passed House Bill 21, a school finance law that included up to $60 million annually for charter facilities funding beginning in fiscal year 2018-19. That funding will be divided per student among the charter schools that meet state standards. Charter advocates, who have petitioned for decades to get such funding, argue that the law is the first step toward receiving the same total dollars per student as traditional school districts. However, critics counter that the law diverts funds from the larger number of students who attend traditional public schools.

Traditional public school districts primarily pay for facilities through bonds repaid with local taxes. Some receive help with bond payments through two state funding programs passed in the 1990s. Instructional funds come from a different pot of state and local money.

Publicly funded and privately managed, charter schools do not levy taxes and, until this year, did not receive any state funding for facilities. They receive the average per-student funding of all traditional school districts, and have used that for both instruction and facilities.

In 2012, the Texas Charter School Association sued the State for facilities funding, arguing their schools were being funded inequitably by the State. The $60 million allotted through HB 21 will help charters that have not been able to build on existing property to serve more students, said David Dunn, the association's executive director. "This is a good first step. It's a great start toward covering the gap in funding, but it doesn't get us the whole way," he said.

This year, Houston-based YES Prep charter carved $3 million out of a state instructional allotment of about $86 million to fund repairs across 14 of its 17 campuses in the city. HB 21 would provide administrators with just under $3 million for those repairs, meaning an additional $3 million is free to spend in the classrooms.

"It's still not enough in the long run," YES Prep CEO Mark DiBella said. "It won't be enough to cover maintenance alone. It certainly won't be enough to cover any new buildings."

The same school finance law also provided a $60 million boost for one of the state facilities funding programs passed in the 1990s, which will help some traditional school districts repay their bonds. But the majority of Texas' fastest-growing school districts receive no state support for facilities and will not see any through this law, said Guy Sconzo, executive director of the Fast Growth Schools Coalition, which advocates for such districts.

Sconzo said he was disappointed that the Legislature granted 5 million students in school districts the same total amount for facilities as the 300,000 in charter schools. "There's something grossly inequitable about that," he said.

Mike Feinberg, founder of KIPP charter schools, said the $60 million allotted to charters in the law would not have been enough to fund all the traditional public schools that need it. "This is not game-changing money at the end of the day" for fast-growing school districts, he said. "It's hard to rationalize how $60 million would have made a big difference when what they needed is in the billions."

The state is working toward increasing the number of high-performing charter schools. Currently, the number of charter licenses is capped statewide at 305 by 2019, and about 171 are operational at latest state count. The U.S. Department of Education last week granted the Texas Education Agency $38 million in grants for the 2017 fiscal year to expand its charter schools – one of nine awards to state agencies across the country.

With the door open for charters to get state facilities funding, charter and traditional public school advocates will be vying for funding increases from the same pot of limited money in future legislative sessions.

"We'll go back to the drawing board and figure out how we continue to advocate for more facilities funding," DiBella said. "Across the board, [the school finance system] is not equitable."


7 thoughts on “In Historic Win, Charters Getting State Funding for Facilities for First Time

  1. What a disservice to our public school districts. Charters were sold to the state by anti-public educators as a better school, a school that could try things differently than the public schools, as alternative learning, and as the years have passed the evidence is in . . . charters do not perform any better than public schools, therefore the chief difference between the 2 is that charter are privately held and financially do not have to meet the same regulations that public schools meet. This allows those big businesses (and yes that is what they are) to make money of our tax dollars at the expense of the american children who are growing up here. I am all for trying new things, I am all for local control, but when the state gives a handout to charters at a higher per student funding than the public schools then those students who can only go to public schools suffer. This is wrong.

  2. So disappointing. My sank further and further as I read this article.

    I really would love for one of these anti-public education legislators to honestly explain why they consistently under-fund our traditional public schools in Texas, yet they are willing to give these private charter school corporations taxpayer money. This opens up such a terrible slippery slope that will continue to further disadvantage public school students.

    I take particular exception with the YES Prep CEO when he says “‘We’ll go back to the drawing board and figure out how we continue to advocate for more facilities funding,’ DiBella said. ‘Across the board, [the school finance system] is not equitable.'” The system is not SUPPOSED to be equitable between the ISD schools with their democratically elected and publicly accountable trustees and privately held and managed corporate charter schools. Those schools made their choice to not charge tuition. Those students and families made their choice to opt out of the traditional public school system. We have freedom of choice is many realms of society in this country, but don’t expect the state and local taxpayers to subsidize your choice.

  3. Words matter. When your story defines charter schools as “privately held”, what does that phrase conjure up in the readers’ minds? It sounds to me that these entities could be owned and operated by individuals, companies and other for-profit businesses. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Most (if not all in Texas) are not ‘privately held’ but operated and held by not-for-profit 501C3 organizations–organizations that are created through our tax law to serve the public interest. Would it not be more accurate to say that charter schools are public, independently operated schools? Words matter. So does accuracy.

  4. Why can’t we work for all students rather that slicing and dicing into those who can afford and understand the ins-and-outs and those who can’t? Those who get a good education and those who don’t?

  5. Andy, respectfully, please understand that public charter schools are held to higher accountability standards than their traditional ISD peers. If a charter school doesn’t hit academic standards for three years in Texas, the charter is revoked and the school is shut down. The same is not true for ISDs. This higher accountability is the trade off that charters make to have slightly more flexibility to innovate new ideas. They are absolutely public schools of choice, with no admissions criteria, and serve only to provide another option for families who want the best option for their children – particularly in areas where the traditional ISDs are failing. Let’s be honest… if you were a parent in a terrible, failing school district… would you still send your child to that school if a beautiful, free, public charter with a history of great academic results was another option for your family?? Come on… no way.

    • My point is not to is not to compare charter schools and ISD schools on academic achievement. If a family feels that their neighborhood public schools are failing to properly educate their children, then by all means that family has the right to opt out of the public school system enroll their students in a charter school. But they should not expect state and/or local tax dollars designated for the ISDs to be rerouted into their charter schools to subsidize their choice. We all make choices in our lives for ourselves and our families and we must accept the consequences of those choices, even if they seems unfair or disadvantageous.

      I know that there are charter schools that are outperforming their local public school counterparts across San Antonio, Texas, and the US, which is wonderful for those students and their families. I’m glad TEA has accountability standards in place for charter schools. However, these are not public entities, regardless of whether they are run by a for-profit corporation or a non-profit organization, and as such they should not be given public funding for facilities.

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