AS STUDENTS IN BOSTON and across the country continue to reel from the effects of the COVID-19 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 extra $190 billion to public schools, of which Boston has received over $400 million. Yet by most measures, students are still far behind their pre-pandemic performance.
This 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? For Boston students, the answer, unfortunately, 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 U.S. cities are funded relative to traditional public schools. Their newest report, out this month, found that in the 2019-20 school year, Boston charter schools received $2,691 less per-pupil funding than traditional public schools. That means that a student who chooses to attend a charter school, on average, sacrifices 10 percent of their funding.
The good news is that this was the third smallest gap among the cities studied. The bad news is that it isn’t because the funding system here is fairer.
The reason the gap is smaller is that Boston charters have been successful at raising philanthropic dollars. When it comes to public funding, Boston charter school students receive $5,084 less than their peers in Boston Public Schools. Policymakers should work to close this gap.
The University of Arkansas team reviewed official school district and state budget documents to capture every dollar flowing to schools, including local, state, federal, nonpublic, and in-kind services.
Across all the cities studied, they found that charter schools received, on average, 30 percent 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 percent and in 2015-16, it was 30 percent.
One might assume 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 even after the research team controlled for student needs, a sizable gap remained.
Of course, the ultimate goal is not funding but better outcomes for students. 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 in the cities studied had reading and math gains that exceeded those of their peers in the traditional public schools they would have attended. Black and Hispanic students and students experiencing poverty had particularly large gains.
That is also the case in many Boston charters. For instance, students at Excel Academy Charter Schools are four times as likely to graduate from college as a student attending a comparative district school.
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 — the resources they need to have a great education and reach their potential. This research shows that Boston has significant work to do if it is to equitably fund its charter public schools.
Patrick J. Wolf is a distinguished professor of education at the University of Arkansas.