Initial Lessons from W.E.B. DuBois in Cincinnati

On May 27, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a front page story announcing that the board of the state’s top performing charter school—the W.E.B. DuBois Academy—had voted to close the school due to serious financial problems. As the school’s sponsor, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation was and remains deeply concerned about what that unexpected closure will mean for the 440 or so students who currently attend the school—nearly all of them low income, minority youngsters for whom this school represents a much-needed education alternative. We have been working with the school’s board of trustees and the Ohio Department of Education to find a solution less draconian than shuttering the school. A solution may or may not be found, but two early lessons can be learned from this developing story.
 
First, charter schools in Ohio are seriously under-funded, the more so when they try to do more than the norm for children who need more than the norm. For example, as the Fordham Institute reported in August 2005, during FY 2002-03, Dayton charter schools received 33.8 percent less funding than district schools: $7,614 vs. $11,498 per pupil, a gap of $3,884. Moreover, charter schools receive no money for facilities, so 10 to 15 percent of a school’s operational funding typically goes to paying the cost of a place in which to operate.
 
This leaves charter schools tasked with making bricks without nearly enough straw. Like KIPP and other high performing charter models across the country, the DuBois Academy has been academically successful in large part because it keeps its students in classrooms much longer than traditional schools—both extended days and years. In Ohio, however, schools don’t get additional dollars for longer school days and longer school years. A charter school receives the same level of funding whether it educates a child for 920 or 2200 hours a year. This discourages some charter operators from providing the extra education that their disadvantaged pupils need—and causes others to spend precious energy finding ways to raise additional dollars, cut corners and close gaps.
 
Because charter schools receive no local tax dollars, unlike traditional school districts they can’t solve their fiscal problems by turning to local voters for a new levy.
 
Second, contrast the W.E.B. DuBois situation with that of the Dayton Public Schools. The Dayton Daily News reported on May 31 that “the Dayton school board expects to seek a new tax levy in the spring of 2007 – a year earlier than planned – because of an unexpected state funding shortfall.” Charter schools have no such option.
 
Ohio’s student funding system creates further tensions between charter schools and the districts in which they operate. Ohio is one of only three states that route charter dollars through the local district’s funding formula and then subtract those funds from the district’s allocation. This guarantees confusion in tracking students across schools and encourages districts to make life hard on charter schools by “flagging” what they deem questionable student records, which in turn costs charters precious cash flow and staff time dealing with angry district officials. This method of funding also inflames many district officials who are reminded each time they look at a state financial reporting document how many students have left for charter schools and how much state and federal money has gone out the door with them. This reminder may prompt districts to improve but it inflames relations between charters and districts. That’s a particular pity because in tight budgetary times district and charter schools have many interests in common that would benefit from collaboration and partnership.
 
The situation at DuBois Academy is fluid but it is not too soon to draw some policy lessons. The most important one is that doing right by disadvantaged kids is hard and takes more time and money than provided by traditional school calendars and funding formulae. This doesn’t mean the state should simply throw more money at education, but it does suggest that schools (be they district or charter) that utilize longer days and longer years and deliver academic results should receive additional public support to underwrite this additional instruction time.
 
Top Charter School to Close,” by Jennifer Mrozowski, Cincinnati Enquirer, May 27, 2006
 
Dayton Schools May Seek Levy as Early as 2007,” by Scott Elliot, Dayton Daily News, May 30, 2006
 

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