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Philanthropy makes up small portion of D.C. charter schools budget

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By Moriah Costa
Watchdog
August 17, 2015

Only six percent of funding for D.C. charter schools comes from private contributions, disproving claims that significant philanthropic contributions gives charter schools an advantage over traditional public schools.

A report released by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute earlier this month found the majority of funding for charter schools comes from the D.C. government. The report is in line with other studies, including a 2011 analysis from the University of Arkansas that found nationally, traditional public schools often receive more money on average than charter schools.

“I think it’s one thing about where people say the funds come from and it’s another thing to look where the actual money comes from, so I don’t think this is all that surprising if we looked across in other states,” said Alison Consoletti Zgainer, executive vice president of the Center for Education Reform. “I think it’s just the rhetoric of charter schools being supported by philanthropy is louder than what the reality is.”

Zgainer said a 2010 survey her organization conducted found that only 8 percent of funding for charter schools came from private philanthropy. The findings were not published.

The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute did not respond to a request for comment.

About 44 percent of D.C. students are enrolled in a charter school. Both charter schools and traditional public schools receive funding per student. The report found that charter schools spent an average of $14,639 per student in fiscal year 2014. That’s in line with district schools, which received an average of $14,497 per student. Charter schools also receive an additional $3,000 per student for facilities, while district schools receive long-term building funds from the D.C. capital budget.

Of the 60 charter schools, 21 were high-performing financially and seven were deemed low and inadequate. Eighteen schools were operating at a deficit, but seven of those were closed or are closing with the rest being monitored by the charter school board.

The report also found that charter schools spend an average of 61 percent of their budgets on personnel, while 11 percent is spent directly on students.

The study was based on data from the Financial Audit Review, released annually by the D.C. Public Charter School Board. The review does not reveal which charter schools are low or high-performing.

The study’s authors recommend the board rank schools based on financial performance, similar to how schools are currently ranked based on academic performance.

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Charter school finances have come under scrutiny recently after two lawsuits alleged that for-profit management companies diverted millions of dollars of public money for personal gain. The two schools, Options Public Charter School and Community Academy Public Schools, were given favorable financial reviews. The board said it was because current law prevented it from accessing financial records of the companies. They are working with the D.C. Council to pass legislation that would require management companies to reveal its finances, but it would only apply to three charter schools in D.C.

Most schools in D.C. are run by nonprofits.

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