It’s hard to believe anyone would think Rayvon Dean is worth less than any other high school student in Michigan.
A senior at University Prep Academy (UPA) public charter school in Detroit, Rayvon, 17, is the star of the school’s nationally-ranked debate team and is headed to the University of Southern California on a full ride scholarship for debate. He’s smart, poised and has an incomparable work ethic.
And yet Rayvon—and thousands more charter school students in Michigan—is worth about $1,500 less on average than students in traditional schools and a whopping $4,034 less than students in affluent school districts such as Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills. Compounding that inequity is the general decrease in per student funding for charter schools over the past several years.
Nothing in Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget is likely to fix that.
In fact, when the budget is released this week, it is doubtful there will be anything in it for charter schools.
Why? Because the proposed investments in preschool, higher education and teacher retirement, while laudable, do not help K-12 charter schools. Even the proposal to bring the lowest spending schools up $34 per pupil to $7,000 is merely a token effort that does little to reduce the age-old problem of zip code-based inequity.
The expected $400 million investment in the Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System (MPSERS), hailed as the big K-12 financial fix because it relieves traditional districts of some of their contributions to employee retirement, doesn’t help charter schools because very few participate in that program, opting instead for more cost-effective 401K retirement plans.
Our Detroit-based network consists of two charter districts—University Prep Academy (UPA) and University Prep Science & Math (UPSM)—with seven schools and about 3,000 students.
When UPSM (the newer of the two charters) opened in 2008-09, state aid was $7,208 per pupil. Additional federal and state dollars for at-risk students brought the grand total allocation per student to $8,226.
Today, UPSM gets $7,770 per student, all in. The state’s foundation allowance went down by $40 and funding for every other support program for poor and at-risk students also decreased over that time, making the overall loss per student $456, or about $600,000 across the district.
The end result is that, combined, UPA and UPSM have about $1 million less to spend on students today than we did just six years ago. Ironically, University Prep Schools are considered winners in the game as our schools qualified for almost all of the best practice and performance-based incentive dollars that Gov. Snyder baked into the budget.
We can blame both the state and federal governments for policies, earmarks and distorted priorities. But it doesn’t really matter to Rayvon if the state or the federal government are at fault. Less is less.
Charter schools may have actually been their own worst enemy when it comes to making the case for equitable funding. For years, charter school advocates proudly—and correctly—celebrated the idea that “we do more with less.”
So, that is what we got—about $12 million less for our 3,000 students than affluent school districts, about $4.5 million less than the average traditional school district and about $1 million less than just six years ago.
Now we aggressively, albeit unsuccessfully, scramble to fill the gap by seeking grants, begging for foundation support and hosting golf outings, galas and, yes, even bake sales.
At University Prep Schools we are on a mission to raise private money to fill the state funding gap. When we are successful it is because donors recognize that we are meeting student needs and want to invest in a winning system.
As the Governor and lawmakers hammer out the 2014-15 budget, they should find inspiration in the words of fundraising guru Kay Sprinkel Grace, who said “in good times and bad, we know that people give because you meet needs, not because you have needs.”
Despite being shortchanged and undervalued charter schools are, indeed, meeting the needs for choice, innovation, efficiency and results. Imagine what we could do with an equitable allocation.
Margaret Trimer-Hartley is chief external relations officer for University Prep Schools in Detroit.