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Charters and the City Budget

James Merriman just posted a very angry piece on his blog, charging that the city’s Independent Budget Office’s recent analysis of Mayor Bloomberg’s 2012 budget plan was too critical of charters. In his haste to criticize the IBO as “one-sided,” however, he stretches his argument a bit too far.

He states that charters enroll “kids that DOE does not have to pay to educate,” but the IBO report notes that the increase in the number of students in charter schools has not been matched with a corresponding decrease in the number of students in district schools, leaving the district to educate the same amount of students for less money:

In theory, the diversion of funds to charters should be offset by a reduction in the number of students being served by the department itself. No estimates exist of the path that students and families in New York follow to charter schools. Are these students who would have been attending public schools or are they students who would have enrolled in private or religious schools? The answer is unknown but is likely some combination of the two. Total enrollment in the public school system has remained relatively stable in recent years as charter enrollment has grown. Regardless of how many charter school students would otherwise have attended public schools, the fact remains that — at least for now — the public schools are being asked to educate roughly the same number of students with a reduced budget available for services to schools.

In addition, despite Merriman’s claim “that the IBO itself has conceded that the charter sector as a whole gets less money per pupil,” what the IBO actually found this February was that while charters’ average funding was just under that of district schools, most charters in the city (the 2/3 in district school buildings) have gotten more support per pupil than district schools since 2008-09. Merriman’s claim that the charter sector currently “gets less money per pupil” in New York City is therefore likely to be simply incorrect. When you factor in the mandatory increase in per pupil aid that began last summer, charters in district buildings are probably now getting over $2000 more per pupil than district schools, and the charter sector as a whole is likely getting over $800 more per pupil.

Finally, on the issue of pensions, Merriman chooses not to mention that the payments made by the city and its district teachers into the pension fund are one of the sources of charter schools’ own funding — even though charters themselves almost never offer pensions to their staffs (only Green Dot, KIPP Academy, and charters which converted from district schools enroll their staff in the Teacher Retirement System.) Combined with the DOE’s recent proposal to spend up to $210 million dollars out of the district’s budget over the next five years to help charter school boards construct new facilities (with no clear explanation of who would then own the buildings erected with the city’s funds), the district’s taxpayers should welcome efforts by organizations such as the IBO to keep an eye on where their money’s going.