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."
Disclosure: The Fast Growth School Coalition has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.