Should charter schools get a share of a school district’s property tax revenue?
Again this year, the halls of the Statehouse resound with pleas for more money for charter schools. The latest plea is to share the proceeds from public-school referendums.
This means charter schools would gain a new revenue source. This means property taxpayers will have to be asked to vote to increase the amount of the referendum or face a cut in the support proposed for district schools.
This proposal ignores the fundamental distinctions between charter schools and traditional public schools. The latter have democratically elected school boards and rigid fiscal controls. By contrast, charter schools lack these protections. They do not answer to taxpayers or elected officials. Instead, they enjoy a light-touch approach to control from one of many “authorizers” and the state charter school board.
They are not required to take every child or meet every need. Instead, they define their own mission, which is often reflected in a self-glorifying name. They frequently shutter their doors without warning. Charter schools are not responsible to the elected school boards or taxpayers from whom they want property tax dollars. This alone is a basis to reject the demand to share in referendum proceeds.
The idea of sharing referendum dollars with independent charter schools will undercut the willingness of school boards to seek referendums. It is the mission of charter schools to draw students away from traditional schools. Why would any school district want to share dollars with institutions that want the districts to lose students and the state dollars that follow those students?
Similarly, sharing referendum dollars with charters will undercut the willingness of voters to support referendums. They might resent the non-transparent nature of charter schools. They might not want to undercut the many schools they are already required to fund. They might well be reluctant to add yet another pressure on the overall property tax system. These are understandable and fair concerns.
The charter movement sold itself as different and as not needing property tax dollars. Is the movement claiming that, after 20 years of self-praise, it is coming up short and needs to be treated financially as if its schools were fully public? The schools are not public in the common parlance, but they want the upside of public funding without the downside of public control.
The transparency problem with charter schools has a second critical dimension, making it hard to assess their financial need. Not only do they not give account to elected officials for what they spend, but they also enjoy enormous financial support not shared by traditional public schools. This is done through a complex and intertwined group of foundations and related organizations that provide direct financial support to charter schools and act as cheerleaders for the charter school movement. Full disclosure of such support should be a condition for diverting funds from public-school referendums.
In short, while the Legislature has been all too willing to share sales and income tax dollars with charter schools, there is no reason to believe local school boards and local property taxpayers want to play that game.•
DeLaney, an Indianapolis attorney, is a Democrat representing the 86th District in the Indiana House of Representatives. Send comments to email@example.com.
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