Sunday, February 8, 2015

Increase Funding for City View Charter School

One of the major topics at January's board meeting was the proposal for expansion of City View Charter School, the only public charter school in the Hillsboro School District.   In case you don't recall, a charter school is an alternative public school, which any student can choose to attend instead of their traditional school, without having to spend additional money.   Charter schools are independently run and thus can potentially offer a very different style of education from the traditional district schools.  Because they tend to demonstrate significant academic success while spending less money than traditional schools, they are also not very popular among the unions and the traditional education establishment.   City View has gained a reputation in our district for delivering a successful alternative form of education, and now has a triple-digit waiting list for children who want to attend.    (When more children apply than the "enrollment cap" provided by the district, they are admitted by lottery.)

Based on its success, City View requested a doubling of its enrollment cap, a 10-year extension of their charter contract, and an increase in their funding.    There wasn't any serious opposition to extending their charter or doubling their enrollment cap, based on their current success and the excessively large size of their waiting list.   The one sticking point was the request for a funding increase.   Right now City View receives 80% of the state per-student funding for each student that attends, the minimum required by law, and they want this increased to 90%.   I think there are two important principles we need to keep in mind as we make this decision.

First, we need to look at City View funding in comparison to overall district spending, which is about $11K per student.    The discussion is often incorrectly framed by limiting it to parceling out the state "per student" funding-- which is what the charter funding law is based on-- but this is not actually what we spend per student.  The nominal per-student funding, amounting to about $7000 per student, only represents a portion of district spending.   There are some categories, such as special ed services (which the district supplies to City View) and transportation (which City View doesn't provide) that it makes sense to subtract off the top.  But our all-funds budget also includes some other categories that I don't think it is fair to deprive City View of.  For example:
  • Gain Share and other miscellaneous funding that isn't bucketed in the "per student" category, but is spent on the district's non-charter schools.
  • Construction Loan payments:  This is basically the mortgage on the district's buildings.  City View has to pay rent or mortgage on their own location, which seems directly comparable.  
  • ESD (Education Service District) Services and Funding:  Our district receives state credits for ESD services, plus $4.2 million in opt-out money from state ESD funding that we have decided to spend elsewhere.   Yet City View shares in none of this, and needs to pay directly out of it's "80%" for any ESD services it uses.
When we had this conversation in 2013, the board asked district staff to do a quick calculation, and they determined that when you subtract the appropriate non-comparable areas, the district spends the equivalent of about $8900 per student.   This can vary somewhat depending on judgement calls of what to include, but I think it's pretty clear that the real total is significantly higher than the nominal per-student spending.
Second, a City View student is just as much a part of our district as any other HSD student, and has just as much of a right to our education dollars.   They are public school students in our district, and any student in HSD is eligible to attend.   City View provides a critical alternative option for families who are not wealthy enough to choose a private school or homeschooling, but whose children are not experiencing success in a traditional school.  Thus, we should be aiming for the spending on a City View student to match what we spend on other students in the district, perhaps with a small proportion subtracted for overhead.   And to enforce fundamental fairness, this should be calculated based on each student's proportion of the all-funds budget, not just the nominal "per student" funding.

With these principles in mind, it seems to me that the 90% of the per-student funding that City View has requested is, if anything, less than they rightfully deserve.   As fellow board member Monte Akers mentioned at the meeting, we should ideally have a more specific calculation.   It would be best to see a detailed spreadsheet of actual overhead expenses incurred by supporting City View and subtract that from the district's real comparable per-student spending, to get a precise reasoning for what we spend on this program.   But just based on the core principles above, it seems to me that such a calculation would almost certainly yield a result more than the 90% of nominal state per-student funding that has been requested.   Thus, I am strongly inclined to vote in favor of City View's request, and provide the opportunity for hundreds of HSD students to benefit from the continued success of this innovative program.

Right now we are in the feedback period before the board makes its final decision.   If you agree with me, be sure to send constituent feedback to the board secretary, to help demonstrate public support for City View.