Because Oklahoma’s public charter schools, unlike their traditional counterparts, do not receive local property tax funding, it is very difficult to pay for quality facilities, lawmakers were told at a recent legislative study. At the same time, some traditional districts face similar problems for a different reason: Their local property valuations are too low to pay for construction and repairs.
“The questions are why are some kids that could even live in the same apartment building being funded at a different level but they both attend public schools, and if so by how much?” said Russ Simnick, senior director of state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Simnick noted studies have typically found a “funding gap” between traditional public schools and public charter schools with charters receiving less funding. Studies have shown that charters typically get 19 percent to 21 percent less than their counterparts.
“Study after study has shown us that when a kid leaves a traditional public school and goes to a charter school, only four-fifths of the revenue, the resources, follow that kid, nationwide,” Simnick said.
The reason for the gap is charters’ “lack of access” to local property tax and facilities funding, he said. The difference nationwide is about $2,300 per student.
“That adds up when you have a school with 200, 300 students,” Simnick said.
That proved true for The Academy of Seminole. That public charter school launched in August 2018 with 30 students in grades nine and 10 and has since expanded to include 300 students in grades pre-K through 11. The school plans to add 12th grade next year.
“There’s a lot of excitement that came with that, but also a lot of difficulties in trying to find funding and facilities to equip our facilities for that many students,” Wren Hawthorne, head of school at The Academy of Seminole, told members of the House Common Education Committee.
The school is now housed in an American Legion building, but that site mostly contains the academy’s gymnasium, cafeteria, and administrative offices. Officials had to obtain 14 portable buildings to house most classes.
“In a small rural area, you can imagine finding a facility large enough for 300 students that was in any condition that we could use was very difficult,” Hawthorne said, adding that facilities had proven the “biggest challenge” for the school so far.
Even officials who represent traditional public schools concede the facility-funding challenges facing charter schools.
“Our public charter schools are primarily in our two urban settings, and they get zero dollars from the local revenue,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.
Simnick said several states have worked to address the funding gap between public charter schools and their traditional counterparts. He said Colorado provides charters with 100 percent of the district per-pupil operating revenues for each student, provides charters access to property tax funding, and a state fund also provides $5.5 million to equalize funding for all state-authorized schools.
New Mexico requires that charter funding must be at least 98 percent of the per-pupil amount in other schools. Indiana has a grant program for charter-school facilities. Tennessee also funds grants for charter schools’ capital needs.
“We know that the problem exists,” Simnick said. “We know the reason. And states have taken a number of creative ways to address this.”
Meanwhile, some traditional public schools also struggle to pay for buildings and upkeep despite receiving local property tax funding that charter schools do not. Hime said Oklahoma is one of only four states where no state funding is provided to school districts for buildings. Instead, capital projects are funded with local property tax revenue.
“Your ZIP code determines the facility conditions,” Hime said.
Hime said per-pupil property valuations range from $5,000 per pupil to “hundreds of thousands of dollars per student” in districts with substantial businesses properties.
“When you look at buildings, obviously it causes inequity,” Hime said.
Jim Mathews, superintendent of New Lima school district, which has 275 students, said his school is among those that struggle with facility costs.
“Lima now has a population of 53 people,” Mathews said. “Our school has no business. It has no stores. It has no post office. We’re just a school sitting out there, and we have 275 students, and we just sit out in the middle of nowhere.”
Mathews, who has worked in Oklahoma schools for 47 years, previously worked at Valliant schools in southeast Oklahoma. Thanks to Weyerhaeuser, property valuation in that district is between $90 million and $100 million. For 17 years, he was also superintendent at Sasakwa, which is in Seminole County. The story at Sasakwa was very different than in Valliant.
“My first day as superintendent at Sasakwa, you’ll see the general fund: zero. The building fund: zero. Child nutrition fund: zero,” Mathews said. “Now that’s broke, ladies and gentlemen. You might have seen people poor before, but I bet you’ve never seen a school where all three funds zeroed out.”
At that point, in 1996, the Sasakwa district had 134 students. The high school and junior high had both been constructed in 1937 and two rooms in one building “had been condemned,” Mathews said.
He said districts patrons were willing to pass a bond for new construction.
“We feared the school’s going to fall in on top of our students while they were there,” Mathews said. “We had water coming through the walls of the building—not through the ceiling, through the walls.”
But the district had a property valuation of just $3.5 million, which meant its bonding capacity was $350,000.
“Do you think you can build a building for $350,000?” Mathews asked. “It’s not going to happen.”
The district struggled to pay for maintenance and also lacked the money to fund a new building, he said, and it took a wide range of extraordinary steps to shore up the district’s finances.
“There’s a lot of difference between a school like Valliant and one like Sasakwa,” Mathews said.
He noted there are enormous differences between even neighboring schools when it comes to local property tax funding that can pay for buildings.
“Kiowa is one of the richest districts in the state, and three miles from it is Pittsburg, which is one of the poorest districts in the state,” Mathews said.
“The temptation from many of you that are urban legislators is to say, ‘Well, let’s just consolidate,’” said Rep. Zach Taylor, a Seminole Republican who requested the study. “Well, that’s not a fix-all. You may think that saves a lot of money. You may think that is the long-term solution, but as Mr. Mathews stated, some of these small schools like Lima are our best-performing schools in rural communities.”