Why Charter Schools Deserve Another Look from Philanthropy

Opponents of public charter schools often argue that they pull funds away from traditional public schools, citing this as one reason that K-12 education in America in underfunded. While it’s still unclear how the Biden administration will approach funding for public charter schools, President-elect Joe Biden did show disdain for charters on the 2020 campaign trail. (See reporting on Biden’s educational policy by Max Eden, one of the Roundtable’s annual meeting speakers, here.) But contrary to the prevailing narrative, charter schools receive 33 percent less funding than their traditional counterparts overall.

According to a recent study by the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which examined 18 major cities where charters are most common, in 2018 $23,680 went to an average student enrolled at a traditional school, while only $15,881 went to the average student in a charter school. This means that students at public charter schools receive nearly $8,000 less in educational resources, and yet, according to the most recent research and evidence, charter schools still manage to boost students’ educational and behavioral outcomes.

Charter school critics often attempt to justify this funding gap by arguing that public charter schools make up the difference with charitable donations. However, the University of Arkansas study shows that, on average, traditional public schools receive 46 percent more philanthropic support than charter schools, drawing in approximately $3,090 compared to just $1,680 for public charter schools. These funding gaps persist even when accounting for programs at traditional public schools that could require more funding—like those that serve English-language learners or children with special needs.

Because of their growing popularity over the last 20 years and success boosting student achievement—including improving high school graduation rates and college enrollment—many philanthropists have found well-performing charter schools to be a good investment that is worthy of support.

When the first charter school was founded in the United States in 1991, this new tool of education reform and opportunity found support from both Democrats and Republicans. And, at least until the last couple of years, the majority of voters supported public charter schools. Now, due in part to pushback from teachers’ unions, support for charter schools has become known more as part of the Republican platform.

Despite this perception, however, charter schools still enjoy support from across the political spectrum—because they have proven effective. Many charters are successful in helping students achieve higher levels of annual growth in learning, especially for minority students, those with special needs, and children growing up in challenging circumstances.

Not to mention charter schools were some of the most nimble and successful schools to launch into online learning at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. When almost all schools in the U.S. went virtual, more than half of all public-school districts offered no instruction or grading, only general learning materials (or no materials at all) in the first few weeks. Charter schools, however, went virtual before the government ordered them to—and started serving children right away.

Even though public charter schools don’t benefit from the amount of cash flowing into public schools, they still manage not only to teach their students, but also, in many cases, to provide better educational and behavioral outcomes than their traditional public-school peers.