How do Alaska charter schools manage to keep their class sizes smaller, send their teachers out of state for specialized training, upgrade their buildings and purchase the latest and greatest technology? It’s simple: They use money originally allocated for high schools to do this.
A close inspection reveals Alaska statutes and regulations imposed by the Department of Education grant special additional funding to charter schools. Local school districts are prohibited from withholding funds allocated by the legislature to charter schools in the same way they do from a conventional school.
The state gives the same amount of money to school districts for each student without accounting for the students' age. School districts typically withhold some of this funding from elementary schools and set it aside for high school and middle school students. This makes sense, because educating a high school student costs more. Sports, vocational education and Advanced Placement courses for a high school senior costs more than a kindergarten class.
Charter schools are given the money that was originally intended to support older students. The problem is, charter schools are generally elementary schools, so they don’t have vocational programs, sports, activities or AP classes. Instead, they spend this money on keeping their class sizes smaller, building upgrades and out-of-state trips for their staff.
Charter schools generally don’t spend their money on special education and other programs for at-risk students. Why? Because charter schools in Alaska, with few exceptions, exclude low-income and disabled students. Charter schools are allowed to impose requirements that traditional schools are not. Charter schools can require parents to volunteer as a condition of enrollment. They can refuse to offer school lunches and busing, they can impose behavioral requirements as a condition for enrollment, and they often tell parents of disabled children that their children simply “aren’t a good fit."
If you’re a single parent with a modest income, will you send your child to the school without buses or lunches? How will you volunteer at the school? If your child misbehaves, when will you find the time to fight to keep him in school? What if he’s disabled, will you find a school that’s a “better fit?" Parents of low-income or disabled students disproportionately send their children to traditional schools while these traditional schools are forced to operate with less money even though they are serving a population that is more expensive to teach.
The students that do go to charter schools are generally, white, higher income and non-disabled. When they age out of their charter elementary, they take advantage of the high school programs at the traditional high school. In this way, charter schools, take, take and take some more. Meanwhile, the Department of Education and the Legislature are left wondering where the money went. The state’s laws and policies are concentrating poverty and disabilities in traditional schools, and they are forcing resources out of the hands of these children and giving them to their higher income, non-disabled peers.
The state and Legislature have neglected their duty. The state has failed to ensure all students have equal education opportunities by supporting policies that are inherently discriminatory. The Legislature needs to ensure all students have access to appropriate and equitable funding.
Austin Stevenson, Ph.D., is an elementary school principal on the Kenai Peninsula.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.