OKLAHOMA CITY — Armed with tales of ancient toilets, makeshift school buildings and struggles retaining top teachers, charter school leaders told lawmakers that it’s imperative they figure out how to equalize the amount of money allocated to Oklahoma’s independent schools.
Charter schools want to be treated like traditional public schools, said Craig Hulse, vice president of ReadyCO, a conservative Colorado organization that supports school choice. Hulse testified at the interim study probing Oklahoma’s funding inequities Tuesday at the state Capitol.
“Anything you can do to just close that gap, I think is fair to all,” he said.
Under state law, charter schools receive a share of the state’s per-pupil funding. Unlike traditional brick and mortar school districts, however, charter schools cannot fund operations by issuing bonds or by levying other taxes. Nor can they borrow money.
“We should look for ways to fight this disparity in our funding,” said Barry Schmelzenbach, principal of Harding Fine Arts Academy and president of the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association.
He said his school receives about 40 percent less funding than traditional schools in Oklahoma City. His high school serves about 385 students.
The inequity in funding makes it hard for schools to recruit and retain high-quality teachers, and it also means that some charter schools have relied on per-pupil funding — intended to pay for things like teacher salaries, textbooks and other classroom needs — to cover other expenses, he said.
Schmelzenbach described his school’s struggles to afford the cost of replacing 40- to 60-year-old toilets, and how hard supporters worked to raise the money.
“We have to rely solely on gifts and grants,” he said.
He said that charter school supporters aren’t asking that money be diverted from traditional public education, but Schmelzenbach said it’s time for lawmakers to consider a new approach to meet the funding needs of the 29 public nontraditional schools. More than 17,000 students attend Oklahoma charter schools.
He suggested state leaders design a new weight in the funding formula to address the inequity.
State Sen. Micheal Bergstrom, R-Adair, questioned whether reweighting the formula automatically redistributes existing funds.
“I think we can find a creative way that doesn’t take away,” Schmelzenbach said.
Chris Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South Schools, said charter schools have waited decades to see an improvement in funding.
His school, which already serves 3,400 students in south Oklahoma City, has 1,000 students on waiting lists. The school can’t accept any more students because it can’t find teachers or afford facilities.
“We’re not permitted to levy taxes,” Brewster said. “However, we are expected to outperform local schools. But we are significantly underfunded.”
He said lawmakers should spend time in the 2019 session working on a solution to bring funding closer to traditional schools.
“My sense is we need to create a new pot of money,” Brewster said.
With an expected budget surplus in 2019, it may be the year to finally fix funding equities without harming traditional schools, he said.
“Certainly, more resources would help,” said state Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa.
He said the state should not treat charter school students as second class just because they’re not enrolled in traditional schools.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.