Utah Charter Schools Making Progress on Funding Equity

New Utah Foundation LogoUtah’s charter schools have struggled for resources since they were first authorized in 1998, but a new study by Utah Foundation shows they’ve been able to receive more public funding in recent years.

Charter schools have not been able to access property tax revenues directly, and various funding formulas have left a gap of as much as 14% between the resources provided to charters as compared to district schools. That has been closing in recent years, in part because state lawmakers have focused on providing additional resources. But there’s still a difference in state funding of almost 10%.

Beyond the dollar differences in state funding, this study looks at the equitability of funding levels. Ultimately, the study determines that charter schools and district schools operate within two uncomparable systems, with different purposes and types of accountability. Accordingly, it would be difficult to ever definitively conclude whether they are equitable.

Charter schools are the fastest-growing component of Utah’s public education system. There were 117 charter schools in the state as of October, 2015, serving 67,509 students. That represents about ten percent of Utah’s total public school enrollment.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Utah has seen high growth in charter school students, with half of 2015’s student body growth in charter schools.
  • The per-pupil education funding gap has narrowed since 2004, from 13.9% to 9.9% today.
  • The funding gap is due in part to charter schools serving a narrower subset of the population and offering more targeted programming.
  • Utah’s innovative “moral obligation,” start-up, and revolving loan programs are providing cost savings and necessary funding to new charter schools.
  • Districts spend four times the amount that charter schools spend on transportation, though this is due to a mandate put upon the districts.
  • Senate Bill 38 is expected to result in an increase per charter school student of $193, decreasing the charter/district per pupil difference by more than 25%.

“The charter school funding from Senate Bill 38 in the last session goes a long way in making per pupil funding between charters and districts equal,” said Utah Foundation Research Director Shawn Teigen, the primary author of the report. “However, as this report shows, the question of funding equity is more difficult to answer. These are simply two different systems. Whether equity was achieved in past years or will be achieved with SB38 is difficult to determine.”

The report Utah’s Charter Schools: Comparisons and Funding Equity with District Schools is available on the Utah Foundation website at www.utahfoundation.org. Financial support for this report was provided by the Utah State Charter School Board.