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Many Factors to Consider in School of Choice Funding Formulas

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The National Education Policy Center has released the fourth brief in a series of 10 called Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking. This section focuses specifically on the public funding of school choice. Past topics have included teacher evaluation, Common Core state standards, and preschool education.

The school choice brief, written by William Mathis, the managing director of the Boulder, Colo.-based center, lays out recommendations for how policymakers should make decisions regarding how schools of choice—including charter schools, voucher programs, magnet schools, cyber charter schools, open enrollment districts, as well as private and home school models—are funded.

Simply allotting the same amount of per-pupil spending for schools of choice and traditional public schools does not take into consideration the specific circumstances of those schools, he says. For instance, a school that focuses on educating children with autism may require a higher per-pupil spending, while virtual schools, which don't have transportation or facility-related costs, may require less, the brief argues.

The National Education Policy Center often brings a high level of scrutiny to the research and assertions of school choice advocates, in the past questioning how much money charter schools spend as well as the amount of money tax-credit voucher programs will actually save states. The organization has also cautioned policymakers and educators to curb the growth of full-time online schools until more research proves their efficacy. In fact, one arm of the education research center focuses specifically on reviewing publications released by think tanks, critiquing reports released by institutions like the Thomas B. Fordham Institute as well as the American Enterprise Institute on a variety of topics.

The sources of funding for school choice programs vary from state to state, says Mathis, in the brief. Some states provide high levels of state support, while for other choice programs, the primary sources of funding are local districts, parents, or private sources, he says. Where the school is located, Mathis notes, can also have a major effect on how much it costs to operate.

All of these factors lead to convoluted ways of developing school funding formulas, says Mathis, which give rise to the "crazy-quilt pattern of laws and rules" that currently exist in regards to how schools of choice are funded.

Mathis recommends that policymakers start by determining whether or not it's in the public interest to offer public subsidies to school choice options. If the answer is yes, policymakers should analyze each type of school choice separately because of the inherent differences in their funding needs. Both schools of choice and traditional public schools should be subject to regular public audits, he argues.

He also suggests placing limits on profits and salaries when private companies run schools, and he recommends developing funding structures for special education students and English language learners based on adequacy studies and research.

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