Look no further than Los Angeles charter schools for a great reason to change the way our school funding system works. Charter school directors report that as much as 37 percent of the funding intended for special education students never reaches the school, let alone the classroom. Instead, districts, like the Los Angeles Unified School District, keep the money.
What do the charter schools get in return? "Not only does the district take as much as 37 percent from us, but they provide zero services in return," said Yvonne Chan, principal at the 1,500-student Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima.
Joe Lucente, president of Fenton Avenue Charter School in Lake View Terrace, told the Daily News that his school pays for special ed services itself, but still gets billed $220,000 by the LAUSD.
The pilfering of these funds is troublesome because schools and special education programs, in both public and charter schools, are under increasingly intense pressure to produce improvements and boost test scores thanks to President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.
Last year, the federal government labeled more than 35 LAUSD elementary schools as "needs improvement" schools solely because of the low test scores of special education students. A depressingly low number -- only 6 percent of LAUSD special education fourth-graders were proficient in reading, and overall just 28 percent of fourth-grade students at Los Angeles Unified schools were proficient in reading, according to a 2004 report by Education Week. Poor special ed test scores even caused normally high-performing schools like Calvert Elementary in Woodland Hills, Chatsworth Park Elementary and Darby Elementary in Northridge to be tagged as "needs improvement."
Ideally, charter schools, supposedly free of red tape and district bureaucracy, would produce innovative ideas and techniques to help their public school brethren improve test scores and the quality of services they are providing to special ed students. And despite losing huge sums of money that should be going to these students, charters are still managing to do just that.
The Community Honoring Inclusive Model Education charter school in Woodland Hills uses a successful full-inclusion system that places hearing-impaired students, and those with cerebral palsy or other developmental challenges, in regular classes, side-by-side with nondisabled children.
L.A.-based Opportunities for Learning pinpoints all students' strengths and weaknesses through detailed testing and benchmarking, enabling them to closely monitor learning trends and target instruction to specific needs.
The Vaughn Next Century Learning Center has gone even further, reaching into the community to run a universal preschool program for 200 neighborhood children that focuses on early literacy. And now, the center plans to expand to add a high school in order to keep their special education students through the 12th grade.
However, charter schools' innovation is surely limited by their lack of control over special education funds. There's no reason for districts to serve as middlemen, taking an unnecessary cut. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering overhauling California's school finance system using a "weighted student formula." The model, developed by UCLA management professor William G. Ouchi and state education secretary Richard Riordan, would attach school funding directly to the children (the money goes directly to whatever school they attend, even charters) and give budgetary control to each school principal.
A recent survey of more than 1,000 public school teachers in California found that 63 percent supported a weighted student funding formula. You can bet that an even higher percentage of charter school teachers and administrators would support such a shift. It would finally give charter schools a level playing field with public schools and go a long way toward improving the quality of education our kids receive.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.