HIDDEN COSTS OF CHARTER SCHOOLS: Former School Board member Baker Kurrus notes hidden state subsidy for every charter school student in Little Rock.

Kids aren’t deck chairs, but the old cliche seems to fit when the subject becomes moving kids around in search of better education.

Last night,, I watched the Little Rock School Board debate conversion of the Forest Heights middle school to a STEM school and conversion of the Geyer Springs elementary to a primary and middle school aimed at gifted children.


With the sadly typical racial divide in evidence, the Board approved the STEM plan at Forest Heights but Superintendent Dexter Suggs pulled back from the Geyer Springs plan because of concern from area board members that Geyer Springs would be saved simply by moving out the low-scoring existing kids (from a highly transient neighborhood full of apartment projects) and replacing them with higher order learners. A similar concern was expressed in the Forest Heights debate.

Sure. It happens in charter schools all the time. Create a haven for middle-income kids who are already learning wherever they are in school and segregate them away from problem kids from poor families, many of them homeless, and the results are, surprise, good.


I wrote yesterday about the state Board of Education meeting today at which several charter schools are on the agenda, including two in the Little Rock area. One, the Academics Plus school in Maumelle is overwhelmingly white and middle income and not succeeding in lifting the at-risk minority kids that they promised 12 years ago were going to be the main focus of the school. Another is the Quest charter middle school, where parents from the middle- and upper-income predominantly white neighborhoods  surrounding the proposed location in Chenal Valley hope to put kids rather than in Little Rock or Pulaski middle schools with high minority populations and low test scores.

I won’t repeat my criticism of the applications. Instead, I have a note from Baker Kurrus, the former long-time Little Rock School Board member who labored  mightily in the cause of improving the state’s largest urban district. As it happens, he’s long been a skeptic about charters, though none could call him an apologist for the well-demonstrated failings of the Little Rock district. (Read what he wrote for us in 2010 after finishing his term.)


He writes today to raise a point overlooked by everyone — particularly legislators — in their rush to enable the Walton family’s manifest destiny of spawning proliferating charter schools, particularly in Pulaski County.

In short:  Every new charter school student in Pulaski County INCREASES the subsidy that ALL Arkansas taxpayers send to educate Pulaski County children. He writes:

The long and the short of it is simple. In a charter, the state funds all of the money, from the first dollar. In a regular public school, the uniform rate of tax, 25 mills, pays some of that foundation funding. In a district with a high tax base like Little Rock, the local revenue raised pays quite a lot of the cost of a regular public school student, so the state aid is diminished. Once that student goes to a charter, the state funds all of the foundation funding amount, from the first dollar.

…   It is complicated because the loss of a student to a charter slightly raises the per pupil revenue available to offset the state portion of foundation funding. Maybe one of the gurus at the U of A’s charter group, or Scott Smith, could take this on and let the good folks out in the state know that they are subsidizing Pulaski County’s charter efforts. As the deseg money goes away, this subsidy will continue to increase.

Just another reason why this charter movement is a largely a fraud. It is not a way to bring innovation to regular schools, or a way to find the best practices to educate the kids who are not now succeeding. It is a way to allow middle class folks who used to go to magnets to have their own sanctuary schools, paid for in large part by the kind folks out in the state who haven’t figured it out yet.

Yes, a precise calculation would be interesting. In 2012-13, there were roughly 5,000 children enrolled in charter schools in Pulaski County. The current state foundation aid of $6,393 per student puts about $32.4 million in foundation aid into the charter schools.  By my rough figures, Little Rock property taxes contribute about $3,700 per student to the 25 mill local tax requirement that offsets state spending. There are differences in taxes among the three school districts and residency would have some impact. But Kurrus estimates the state subsidy to charter schools in Pulaski County at more than $10 million a year, and that might be conservative. It would be $18 million at $3,700 for each of 5,000 students if my rough estimates are correct. That is, local property taxes would cover that part of the state’s bill in the three conventional schools districts. The state pays the whole tab in the charters.

CORRECTION AND AMPLIFICATION: Gary Ritter of the Education Reform program at the University of Arkansas took a look at the numbers and says that Kurrus’ figuring is wrong. I got back with Baker and he agrees that Ritter is right and that his calculation was wrong and he apologizes. It’s complicated, but here’s Ritter’s explanation:


The foundation funding amount in Little Rock School district is comprised of TWO components – money raised from local property taxes and money provided by the state.

** The local revenue per kid is based on the TOTAL LOCAL TAX REVENUE divided by the number of STUDENTS
** The state money per kid is simply the DIFFERENCE between the state guaranteed FOUNDATION (@$6400 now) and the LOCAL REV per kid

When kids leave Little Rock for a charter, the STATE SAVES money in TWO ways –
(1) the state no longer pays the state money per kid to Little Rock for these particular kids AND, more importantly,

(2) the state sends lesser subsidy to Little Rock for ALL the remaining kids because the LOCAL REV per kid actually increases when the enrollment decreases (the SAME total tax revenue divided by FEWER kids results in more LOCAL money per kid)

When kids leave Little Rock for a charter, the STATE LOSES money in ONE way –
(1) the state now must pay the full foundation amount per kid to the charter school for these particular kids.

MATHEMATICALLY, the savings and the losses perfectly balance out. 

Kurrus agrees and thanks Ritter for a gentle correction. He was aware of the increase in local funding, as I was, but didn’t work through the math on all students. Kurrus noted some special factors — declining enrollment funding and changes in poverty concentration — that could still affect the balance of trade, “but on the big picture I have erred.”

He added, however, 

If charter schools under Arkansas’s funding mechanism don’t, over the long run, directly cost the state any more money on a per pupil basis, they sure do cost us more in other ways. Gary correctly points out that the tax burden shifts around some, but the long and the short of it is that we have an elaborate voucher system, which allows a student to go to a charter and the money follows the student, albeit in a roundabout way. 

I’d add this observation on funding: Some of these charter students will be moving from private schools. I don’t think even Ritter can find a net wash for the fact that a new charter school student costs the state $6,300 a year, with no contribution from a local property tax.

Kurrus commented earlier about the broader argument on charter schools, which remains applicable:

The high end charters, with low ESL [English as second language students], low free lunch, etc., are the opposite of what charters are supposed to be. Instead of bringing new ideas, fresh approaches, and innovation for students who otherwise would be unsuccessful, these schools take kids who are easier to educate and who are successful in regular schools, and the state pays extra money to educate them.

Some few charter schools are different. We know that there are some that work well, especially in areas with no regular schools that are adequate.

At a time when we are trying to reduce the number of inefficient districts, we are forming new districts with large overheads, lots of support staff, lots of cronyism, and a very high cost per pupil when student need is assessed. I haven’t looked this up lately, but eSTEM, LISA and Academics Plus would probably each be bigger than half of the districts in the state.