Tennessee lawmakers want to verify that school districts in Nashville and Memphis are giving privately-run charters their fair share of funding. Turns out, the two cities are using slightly different formulas to calculate how much they owe.
The Tennessee Comptroller was asked by the Senate Education Committee to look into payments to charter schools. And auditors saw how the state's policy can have a variety of interpretations.
"When we were trying to say this is the definitive number, we couldn't, because nobody could confirm for us what those formula numbers should be," says senior research analyst Tara Bergfeld.
Charter schools get paid based on how many students they have in a given month. Districts are required to send the money they would have spent educating those children. So they do some seemingly simple math — state and local funding divided by total enrollment. The result is a rate known as "per-pupil spending."
The difficulty is how to calculate enrollment. Metro Schools has been using the current year's figure. Since the district has been growing, that drives down the rate of per-pupil spending slightly.
By contrast, Shelby County Schools has been shrinking, and that district uses the previous year's data, which — for them — also results in a lower per-pupil figure. In short, if the two districts swapped interpretations, they'd each be sending more money to charters than they are now.
The Tennessee Department of Education has sent a memo to both districts telling them to at least remain consistent for the next year while state officials figure out how to standardize the process.
"We did not find any signs of negligence or misallocation of funds on the part of the district," Bergfeld says. "It appears that many of the issues found in our report can be resolved through administrative changes at the State Board of Education and by more clear and consistent guidance by the Department of Education."
The Tennessee Charter School Center says it would like to see more transparency and collaboration.
"We look forward to working with the local districts and state officials to help establish increasingly more effective systems and procedures for accounting and distributing funds," spokesperson Amanda Henneghan says in a statement.