Charter schools feel pinch of inadequate funding

When two history-making charter schools welcomed new students this month, one did so without a music teacher, the other had no gym balls or basketball hoops and few lockers.

Ivy Preparatory Academy in Norcross and Statesboro’s Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts & Technology opened for business again strapped for cash. Despite their June approval as Georgia’s first commission charter schools, a designation that affords them the same funding as traditional schools, money hasn’t flowed their way yet.

Nevertheless, bills are adding up. And like many other start-up charter schools in Georgia, CCAT and Ivy Prep, an all girls school, have limited funds to cover expenses. Ivy Prep’s glass buildings alone cost $25,000 a month in rent.

And the problems aren’t unique to Georgia. Nationally, charter schools often don’t receive the funds they need.

For weeks, local matching funds that would give Ivy Prep and CCAT a financial injection have been mired in bureaucracy as state Department of Education officials wade through a new process – calculating how much money should follow a child to their commission charter school. Once the funds are dispersed, a legal challenge is expected. Districts which stand to lose thousands are gearing up for battle over what they perceive as a threat to local control.

The funding delay has forced Ivy Prep and CCAT to operate without extras. CCAT, a middle and high school, is paying teachers 2006 wages. Ivy Prep, which now has sixth and seventh graders, is on the verge of a financial crisis.

“In August, we won’t meet payroll unless we have the money,” said J. Neil Shorthouse, board chairman for Ivy Prep, a school of 310. “We have double the number of students so we have double the number of teachers.”

Parents and community members are doing what they can. On Thursday, the foundation of the former “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star DeShawn Snow hosted a $500-a-plate fund-raiser to benefit Ivy Prep and other programs for girls.

“It puts a heavy burden on parents to provide what should be essentials for the school, but we do what we have to do,” said Maria Bruner, who has a seventh grader at Ivy Prep. “We have made it this far on the little bit that was provided.”

Ivy Prep’s financial troubles are echoed nationwide. Charter schools, viewed by President Obama as the frontier for public education innovation, feel the pinch of inadequate funding. Many are forced to operate on tight budgets while serving a growing number of students. Last school year, 1.4 million – 3 percent – of the nation’s public school students attended charter schools. About 3 percent of Georgia public school kids attended them.

While officials with the Georgia Charter Schools Commission work behind the scenes to get CCAT and Ivy Prep full funding for every student, other charter schools face similar problems.

Charter schools usually receive far less money than mainstream campuses to educate public school students – an average of 78 cents on the dollar nationally. In many states, including Georgia, allocations for the education of students are also stretched to cover lease payments and building maintenance. As a result, the schools have less money for teacher salaries and academics.

“Funding is a challenge for a lot of charter schools – and in some cases it does lead to them eventually closing,” said Todd Ziebarth, a policy vice president for National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Since 2000, the contracts for 10 charter schools have not been renewed by the state. Some closed as a result of financial and governance challenges or low academic performance. A recent Georgia State University study examining the financial health of start up charter schools found that about 40 percent had operating deficits or reported negative net assets during the 2006-07 school year because they didn’t have enough operating funds to meet expenses or cash reserves to ease the burden of mounting costs.

California, Minnesota, Utah and Washington D.C. have approved financial aid laws allowing charter schools to access millions of federal dollars in State Charter Schools Facilities Incentive Grants to provide greater funding equity.

Charter schools have tight budgets partly because students are not automatically shepherded their way like traditional public schools.

“A charter school must be able to attract students successfully in order to be financially viable,” said Andrew Broy, an associate superintendent with the DOE. “The way the funding formula works, the state funds schools based on the enrollment count.”

Despite a growing enrollment, Ivy Prep’s new physical education teacher, pro soccer player Dominik Hofmann, 25, from Austria, has a wish list a page long. When he arrived at the all-girls school, which out-scored many of its sixth grade peers on state standardized tests in 2008-09, he learned it lacked basic sports and fitness equipment – and most of all, a gym. Class is held in the parking lot.

“I was disappointed,” Hofmann said. CCAT, in operation for eight years, has learned not to dream big. The modest school of about 130 students in modular metal building has a $700,000 budget, 90 percent of which goes to salaries. Its first-time teachers are paid about $28,767 – what Georgia’s new educators earned in 2006.

CCAT’s head of school Kathy Harwood prides herself on being “frugal.” Harwood says she would love to hire a music instructor, pay current salaries, buy land to build a green school, but the bottom line stares back at her. Her facilities costs run about $167,000 annually. She received a $120,000 facilities grant last year, but expects to receive less than 25 percent of that this fall, well below what a traditional school district would receive, she says.

Despite doubling its population, Ivy Prep only received state and federal funding for 150 students, its enrollment last year. Initial payments to schools are based on the previous year’s population and adjusted later after the official enrollment count in October. Tony Roberts, executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, has urged state officials to move quickly on funding Ivy Prep saying the school is in “economic purgatory.”

Ivy Prep receives about $3,800 a student. It would receive more than $8,200 per pupil with matching local funds. The school has $2 million in budget needs. The school draws from nine counties, but their main attendance zones are Gwinnett and DeKalb.

Last week DOE staff visited Ivy Prep and CCAT to count heads. “I think in a couple of weeks the funds should be able to be distributed,” Broy said.

Some superintendents will be ready for that day. Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association said a challenge is forthcoming. “I have had conversations with Bulloch and Gwinnett [counties]. I know both of them have their lawyers at work.”

Until the money comes for lockers, plaid-skirted students at Ivy Prep lug their backpacks, purses and lunch boxes everywhere. Seventh grader Mernyse Bruce packs light. “If you bring a lot of stuff you have a hard time getting to class.”

A waif-like sixth grader recently became a victim of government bureaucracy. She broke her arm running in the parking lot at gym.

“Could it have happened indoors, yes, but the fact that we are still in need of a gym, the situation was amplified,” said Nina Gilbert, head of Ivy Prep. “There are some basic needs that we have that are not being met.”


Georgia has 122 charter schools and 46 petitioners in the pipeline awaiting approval by either the state Board of Education or the state’s newest authorizer, the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.


43,300: Number of Georgia kids in charter schools.

$6,708: Average dollars allocated in per pupil funding for charter school students nationwide ( Other public school students receive about $8,600).

4,600: Approximate number of charter schools nationwide

What is a “start-up” charter school?

Start-up charter schools, the most common charters in Georgia, are formed by private individuals, organizations, or state and local public entities that agree to operate a school according to the terms of a charter contract between them, their local and state Board of Education.