Tax-dollar tensions strain local charter schools in Georgia

School money illustration

School money illustration (Credit: iStock)

Aug 19, 2021
Key Points
  • Roughly 1 in 26 Georgia students enrolled in charter schools in spring 2021.
  • Less money spent per student in local charter schools than nearby schools.
  • Limited funds to open new state charter schools.

Georgia’s state-funded charter schools are free and open to all students, but many miss out on local tax dollars that benefit students in traditional K-12 public schools.

More than 67,000 students enrolled in charter schools in the spring of 2021, totaling roughly 1 in 26 students out of the state’s total 1.7 million student population, according to state data. Most charter schools have less money to spend per student than traditional schools in their surrounding districts or compared to the state average, state Department of Education data shows.

Charter advocates say funding disparities make it tough for many charter schools to boost student academic progress compared to nearby schools, which is a vital part of the agreements that allow them to exist.

Charter school infographic
Charter schools in Georgia have seen a high rate of closures or reversions to traditional public schools since 2009, but they also show promising trends in students' academic progress. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

There are many kinds of charter schools in Georgia, each operating based on their agreements with state or local school districts.

Charter schools face tighter academic scrutiny in return for relaxed rules on what courses to teach, student schedules and teacher qualifications. They can also set up independent governing boards or advisory councils, unlike traditional public schools that take orders from local officials who oversee all schools in a given district.

Like traditional public schools, charter schools in Georgia receive state funding based on how many students they enroll each year. They can also qualify for certain federal grants in special education and for school improvement.

Charters and traditional public schools differ when it comes to how much each gets in revenues from local taxes. State law gives traditional K-12 schools a share of local property and education-earmarked taxes. Charter schools are not legally entitled to receive local tax dollars, leaving it up to district officials whether to share their local taxes or not.

Charter-school advocates estimate most charter schools on average have access to 25% less funding than traditional public schools in Georgia.

More than half of the roughly 50 charter schools that have agreements with local districts saw less spending on each student than other schools in their same districts in 2019, according to state data.

Even fewer locally run charter schools matched the student spending of nearby schools in 2018 and 2017. Less than one-third of charters spent more per student than their districtwide averages in 2018, while roughly one-fourth did so in 2017, state data shows.

That disparity holds true for charter schools in Atlanta Public Schools, which as a district has one of the highest per-student spending averages in the state. In 2019, 11 out of Atlanta’s 18 charter schools spent less per student than the district average.

Another batch of charter schools that contract directly with the state also saw less per-student spending during those years than the state average – even as the number of charters under state oversight grew from 24 in 2017 to 32 in 2019. Each of those years saw less than 25% of state-run charter schools match or exceed the state average for how much schools spent on each student, according to state data.

Those funding shortfalls came as state lawmakers moved in 2018 to hike charter schools’ share of state funds to offset the lack of local tax dollars. Legislation signed into law that year set up charter schools to receive an extra roughly $42 million in 2019 and $46 million in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted officials to slash school spending across Georgia.

Charter-school advocates view money spats between some schools and their local districts as a major reason for a slowdown in the number of new charter schools opening in recent years.

Scuffles have even broken out between some charter schools and local districts over the tax dollars. Seven charter schools in DeKalb County even sued their local district over funding issues in 2020.

Tony Roberts, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Georgia Charter School Association, said he’s worried that local districts may ramp up efforts to take away funding and services like buses from their charter schools to bolster budgets for traditional public schools.

“It really is a way of putting a squeeze on the charter schools,” Roberts said in a recent interview. “That way it’s off your budget and it’s hunky-dory then.”

As a result, he and other advocates anticipate more charter schools to open under state oversight through Georgia’s State Charter Schools Commission. That agency has the authority to approve petitions for new state charter schools or shut schools down for poor performance.

Like other state agencies, the charter-school commission has a tight budget that limits its ability to open new schools or allow locally-run charters to switch over to state oversight, according to state officials. The commission has approved state charters for many new schools over the last few years while also turning down petitions for several other hopefuls. Georgia has around $27 million this year to divvy up for authorizing charter schools and systems across the state, according to budget figures.

Money constraints are only part of the equation for opening new charter schools, said the commission’s chair, Buzz Brockway. New schools also have to show proof they can stand the test of time and not be closed due to financial issues or low academic performance, he said.

“There’s a finite amount of time and we don’t want to experiment because a couple years of lousy education in a child’s life is devastating,” said Brockway, a former state lawmaker from Gwinnett County.

“We can’t just hand these charters to everybody," he added. "I’d much rather be accused of being tight-fisted than opening up a lot of schools that don’t do a good job.”

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Header image credit: iStock