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Protecting Students in Charter Schools During the COVID-19 Financial Crisis

• Sam Duell and Matthew Joseph

We know the challenges all too well at this point. They relate to health, livelihoods and educating our children. It is likely that no one will be completely immune to the effects. Public schools and private schools, online schools and homeschools will all be challenged. During National Charter Schools Week, we will focus on public charter schools, even as we recognize that the negative effects of COVID-19 are not isolated to charter schools alone. And our comments in no way diminish the needs of students who attend other types of schools. Our intent is to promote student-centered policies wherever we find them.

COVID-19 is decimating many of the sources of revenue for schools, with students in charter schools particularly vulnerable to potential funding cuts. States have a strong interest in ensuring that students can remain in adequately funded charter schools.

As state revenues plummet, there is a chance that public charter schools will suffer state funding cuts even greater than other public schools. Charter schools are particularly dependent on state revenue because they are often excluded from local funding that traditional public schools receive–and they are more frequently in urban areas that depend heavily on state funding. In many states, charter schools are even funded outside of the main education funding formula. These provisions are already subject to annual political battles. Traditional districts, facing their own fiscal challenges, may renew their fight against charter school funding.

Charter schools will also face significant additional expenditures.

Their students, like all students, have suffered learning loss and trauma, which will require intensive and personalized interventions. When schools reopen, there will likely be restrictions on how many students can be in a school or a classroom. Periodic closures may re-occur. Charter schools will need to prepare for more distance learning. All of this will cost money, resources and time.

Charter schools will face fluctuations in student enrollment.

Potentially millions of unemployed parents may have move in search of new jobs. On the other hand, many students in private schools may seek to enroll in charter schools as a less expensive alternative. Ideally, charter schools can grow to meet the need, but only a fraction of their funding currently increases based on the number of students served.

Charter schools aspiring to own their school facilities will face new challenges.

Ownership can be a cheaper and more stable solution to one of the biggest obstacles to charter school growth. Yet, the economic crisis is driving up the cost of borrowing, as bonds are viewed as riskier by investors. This may mean that charter schools have to pay more for facilities.

Charter schools remain an important option for families.

To have charter school students flood back into traditional public schools will exacerbate the educational harm caused by COVID-19 and place additional pressures on already distressed districts. To keep charter schools viable during the financial crisis, state policymakers can consider several actions.

  1. States can factor in the ability of schools to raise local funds to offset state cuts. Where charter schools have little or no access to local funding, they should be protected more diligently in state budgets. In other words, states should not cut funding to all schools by the same percentage.
  2. States can maximize the funding that adjusts in real-time with student enrollment, so that charter schools that want to serve more students can do so. This can include not only state funding but local funding, so that all funding is student-centered.
  3. States can make facility financing more affordable for charter schools, by guaranteeing the bonds or using their moral obligation to lower the interest rate required by investors. There is little risk that academically strong charter schools will close, particularly in states with supportive policies. This means that states can significantly reduce the cost of ownership for charter schools at limited cost to the states.

It is an understatement to simply point out that these are tough times. These are extraordinary circumstances. To state policymakers: It is clear that now this is your time to lead the way. Our federal and municipal leaders, our school leaders and our charter school students are looking to you. And while nearly all schools are facing an uphill battle, please keep in mind the 3 million students who attend public charter schools. They need you now more than ever.

About the authors

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.

Matthew Joseph

Matthew is Policy Director for Education Funding Reform for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Matthew previously worked as a Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spearheading a national initiative to improve strategic use of resources in public education. He also served as Executive Director of Advocates for Children and Youth, where he led successful efforts to improve education and other services in Maryland. He also worked as a Senior Associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Matthew received his Bachelor’s from Harvard University and a JD from the University of Maryland School of Law.