Elections 2012
11:14 am
Fri November 2, 2012

Charter Schools' Fiscal Impact Unknown

If Initiative 1240 passes, public school funding would finance each charter school created under the law.

It's impossible to predict the fiscal impact of charter schools. That's partly due to the complicated system of public school financing in Washington, which includes federal and state funding as well as local property tax levies.

"Known Knowns:" Administrative Costs

The state Office of Financial Management estimated that enacting I-1240 would cost the state $3.1 million for administrative costs, including the creation of the new state commission that would oversee up to 40 charter schools. The OFM declined to predict how much the creation of charter schools would cost the state and existing school districts overall, however, calling such costs only "indeterminate, but non-zero."

Charters And Levy Money

Under I-1240, each new charter school would qualify for the same federal and state funding as a traditional public school with the same level of enrollment. But whether a charter would qualify for levy dollars would depend on which type of charter it is: a charter founded by a private organization, or an existing public school converted to a charter by a vote of parents or teachers.

"Conversion" charters would be entitled to local levy dollars. Charters founded by private organizations would also be entitled to past levies if the local school district, rather than the state charter commission, had authorized the charter. 

Both types of charter would be entitled to funding from levies passed within the local school district boundaries.

Money Follows Students To Charters

Another complicating element is that public schools receive different amounts of funding per student based on poverty level, English language proficiency, special education services, and other factors. Charter schools under I-1240 would be required to admit any student, so each school's funding would be determined by the actual enrollment.

Along with tax dollars, charter schools created under I-1240 would be entitled to other benefits that could have a fiscal impact on existing districts and schools.

If an existing school were converted to a charter, the charter would be allowed to remain in the same building and the school district would lose use of the property. However, the district would remain liable for all major repairs and safety upgrades on the building. The district would also still be required to absorb any students who leave the school after it becomes a charter. That could create capacity strain on districts that are already struggling to find enough seats for students.

Charter schools created by private organizations would have to come up with their own buildings, but the organizations would be entitled to lease unused school district property at or below market rates. 

The complex nature of K-12 school funding and the huge amount of variability in the charter schools that could be created under I-1240 mean that the only way to learn the cost of the initiative would be to pass it.