April 9, 2001

When school districts 'lose' students to charter schools or through public school choice, they are obliged to send along a 'tuition payment' equivalent to what they would expect to spend to educate that youngster. If a kid comes back, however, he does so empty-handed.

With the proliferation of charter schools and widespread acceptance and use of 'charter', that has become a significant problem and bids to become even more so, according to Jennifer Davis, deputy state secretary of education.

Delaware Department of Education has counted 154 returnees statewide from charter schools so far this academic year. Of those, 113 came back to their home districts after the Sept. 30, 2000, nose count which determined both state financing and the amounts districts owed the receiving schools. Figured conservatively, that means districts were out about $105,000 of their own money and did not receive another $250,000 in state funds.

"We have to take a snapshot in time" to determine the level of state financing, Davis said. That is done by what is known as a 'unit count' system. Greatly simplified, that means the state puts up about 70% of total operating costs in increments based on groups of 17 students in kindergarten through third grade and 20 in other grades. The units are calculated on the number of students enrolled and attending during the last 10 school days in September.

If a child who lives within the geographic limits of a district elects to attend a school in another district, he or she is part of the receiving district's unit count or figures into a separate per-student count for a charter school. The districts must send along a payment equivalent to their average cost of educating one student -- essentially the total amount of local money budgeted for operations divided by the number of students enrolled.

There is no provision in the laws governing choice and charter for refunds if a student transfers after Sept. 30.

State Representative Joseph Miro has introduced proposed legislation to change that.  His bill, if enacted by the General Assembly, would provide for refunding 75% if the transfer occurs within the first 45 school days, 50% after 45 and before the 90th, 25% between the 91st and 135th school day, and nothing after that. There are the equivalent of 180 school days in public school calendars.

Miro was out of town and unavailable  for comment as this article was being prepared.

Davis said, however, that she is not sure that would be the best way to do it. "Charter school [officials] are concerned because they have fixed costs that don't change if some of their students leave," she said. Salaries and other expenses are budgeted based largely on projected Sept. 30 enrollments. Although they are public schools, charter schools have no taxation powers.

While most colleges and private schools have tuition-refund policies, she said "it's more complicated than that for charter schools." At present they do not have endowments or other sources of income.

Davis suggested that a more equitable arrangement would be to require negotiation between the schools and the districts along the lines of what she said is common practice now with regard to vocational districts in the three counties. While they can and do levy taxes for local revenue, the vocational districts receive their state financing on the same basis as conventional districts.

Officials in conventional districts have long alleged that the vocational districts tend to 'pad' their enrollments by accepting some students not likely to persist in their specialized curriculum with the anticipation that they will leave after the level of state financing is established. Davis declined to comment on that.

She also said DelDOE has not made any effort to determine reasons why students leave charter schools. Most of those schools have waiting lists, so departing students are replaced and updated enrollment data does not indicate  trends. An exception to that is Edison Charter in northeast Wilmington. Its enrollment at last count stood at 753 students, down from 835 at the beginning of the academic year.

"Some of it may be discipline, some may be [academic] difficulty and some is probably normal attrition. We have no way of knowing," she said.

On the other hand, DelDOE does know the extent of the problem from the perspective of the conventional districts. Eleven of the state's 19 have gotten students back from charter schools. Colonial leads the way with 36, of whom 29 returned after Sept. 30. Red Clay is second, with 31 and 22, respectively. Christina with 26 and 25, Brandywine with 24 and 20, and Appoquinimink with six and six round out New Castle County. There was one student who came back, after Sept. 30, to the New Castle County Vo-Tech district..

There is no comparable data for transfers among 'choice' students.

2001. All rights reserved.





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