- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 22, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Members of a legislative commission studying how public charter schools are funded agree that formula should be tweaked, but not how it should be done.

The commission assessing the state’s “Fair Funding Formula,” which was enacted in 2010 to distribute education aid to school districts and public charters, plans to issue a report with findings - not recommendations - later this month.

Under the formula, each school receives an amount from the state per pupil, which is adjusted based on a district’s wealth, school population and the number of economically disadvantaged students attending. When a child enrolls in a charter school, the money follows the child.

Leaders of some traditional public schools in districts were many students attend charter schools have said the formula is unfair because districts have expenses that charter schools don’t, and charters get a cut of the aid for those services.

Chairman Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady says he’d like to apply a “more surgical” approach to the formula, so the tuition paid to charters better reflects their expenses.

“The premise of the formula is that the expenses follow the child too, but they appear not to, in any sort of proportional way,” he said.

State aid pays a share of educational costs, with the balance covered by local communities, federal funds and revenue from other sources, such as grants. Of the nearly 142,000 public school students in the state, about 6,000 go to charters.

O’Grady said districts spend significantly more than charter schools on special education programs, career and technical education for students who go out of the district and preschool screening, among other expenses.

School districts cumulatively spent about $60 million on tuition to send students with extreme needs to specialty schools in fiscal 2014, compared to the $165,000 that public charter schools spent, according to the Rhode Island Department of Education. The expenses for career and technical education and preschool screening were borne only by the school districts that year.

Charter schools have countered that they have expenses districts don’t, notably building costs for new schools. Charters cumulatively spent about $2.6 million on land and building rental fees in fiscal 2014, plus debt service costs, compared to about $609,000 for the school districts.

The Rhode Island League of Charter Schools and the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies declined to comment.

Sarah Friedman, co-director of a public charter school, The Learning Community in Central Falls, said she hopes the commission’s report will clarify the costs, so the state can ensure that all public school students have what they need.

“When you create an abstract idea- a formula- and roll it out, eventually it needs review,” she said. “We’re all committed to all of the children, and the state, being successful.”

Timothy Ryan, executive director of the Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Association, said some districts have higher special education costs because parents are more likely to enroll their children in a local district with established special education programs, rather than a newer charter. The career and technical education costs are higher because high school students participate and many charters are for younger students, added Ryan, a commission member.

“Having a funding formula in Rhode Island was a great achievement several years back,” he said. “I think now we certainly need a ‘Version 2.0,’ if you will, of the funding formula that addresses this problem.”

Fellow commission member Andrea Castaneda, who works at the education department, said school districts are facing difficult budget decisions because revenue is down due to declining enrollment, increasing costs, and in some cases, the expenses of students that are attending charter schools.

“The inaccurate combination of all of these three dimensions into a single description of ‘charter school impact’ is too imprecise to understand the issue and too inaccurate to construct a solution,” said Castaneda, the department’s chief of fiscal integrity and statewide efficiencies.

Castaneda said the formula could be refined, but it needs further study.

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