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Alan Petersime

State budget debate: Should charter schools get extra cash?

In most cases, Indiana charter schools draw money from fewer sources and generally get less aid per student then traditional public schools.

But the question for the Senate Appropriations Committee today was whether that was fair or if they should get a financial boost in the state’s next two-year budget.

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools do not receive local property tax dollars from the state to pay for school buildings and busing. Proponents of charter schools argue they get less money to spend on educating students because some of those dollars must fill the gap for costs outside the classroom. They want the legislature to back Gov. Mike Pence’s proposal to boost charter school state aid by $1,500 per student.

“Traditional public schools spend local dollars on capital, which frees up general fund revenue to spend on teachers and classrooms,” said Chad Timmerman, Pence’s director of education policy. “Charters have to swallow (capital costs) as pure overhead.”

But critics of the idea say charters already get their own special funds that traditional schools can’t tap. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said if the concern is the need for charter schools to have capital dollars to support building purchase, rental or maintenance, extra aid should be focused on that problem.

“I know the conversation is about the $1,500 increase to charters schools, and I know that one of the reasons is for the capital piece, but I have not heard the $1,500 added to that would just be for capital,” she said. “I don’t feel the data shows that public charters should receive more tuition dollars to use as they wish.”

Ritz said charter schools have the same access to state and federal dollars as public schools, plus specific charter school grants that could provide up to three years of extra aid.

Others argued that the cost for adding $1,500 per student to charter schools — estimated at $90 million — was too high. The governor has proposed a total increase to the state’s education spending of about $200 million.

Over a decade, Indiana has seen charter schools grow quickly. Nearly 80 charter schools are now operating statewide, and some critics say fear that they are beginning to drain significant dollars from traditional public schools.

But Jon Hage, CEO of Florida-based Charter Schools USA, was among those who argued the state’s lower funding for charter schools discourages some high quality national networks from bringing more good charter schools to Indiana. CSUSA operates three former Indianapolis Public Schools under a contract with the state and wants to open charter schools here too.

But committee chairman Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, asked if the charter schools Indiana already has should first prove they can raise student test scores before more funding is added or efforts are made to attract new charter school networks.

“We have an awful lot of charter schools authorized by an awful lot of different people,” he said. “If we’re going to dedicate any additional funds to charter schools, I think the committee needs to be thinking about what those standards outght to be before we go ahead and decide to do that.”