This is republished from NSBA’s Center for Public Education’s The EDifier blog by Jim Hull, Senior Policy Analyst.
A new study from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas claims that charter schools are 40 percent more productive than traditional public schools. They found that for every $1000 invested, charter schools obtain approximately a year and half more in student learning than traditional public schools — meaning, in essence, charter schools can be just as effective as traditional public schools at nearly half the cost.
These are incredibly strong findings for charter schools. If charter schools can do everything traditional public schools do at nearly half the cost why shouldn’t policymakers invest more in their expansion? The problem is this study doesn’t even attempt to determine if charter schools can provide the same services with fewer funds than traditional public schools. While the study excludes funding for pre-k and adult education from their calculations — services many traditional schools offer but most charter schools don’t — the authors did not make any adjustments for the fact that:
- Traditional public schools are much more likely than charter schools to provide costly services such as transportation and extracurricular activities such as athletics, band, theater, and civic clubs.
- A smaller proportion of charter schools than traditional public schools are high schools which typically require significantly more funding than elementary and middle schools.
- Traditional public schools enroll a larger proportion of special needs students such as special education and English Language Learners (ELL) who typically require more funding than the average student. This is especially true for severely disabled students which typically cost districts four times more to educate than the average student. However, charter schools rarely enroll severely disabled students.
- A number of charter schools are located in buildings owned by traditional public schools at no or reduced costs to the charter school. Even though by doing so traditional public school are in fact subsidizing charter schools, this is not accounted for within the study so it appears that traditional public schools are using more funds than charter schools.
The authors claim they did not make these and other adjustments, “To avoid the appearance of taking an advocacy position…” However, making an apples to apples comparison of how much funding charter schools receive to provide similar services as traditional public schools is not taking an advocacy position. It can be done with objective statistics.
Yet, as the authors note doing so is extremely difficult, if not impossible, as it would take going through every line item of the budgets for both charter schools and traditional public school districts. While indeed it would an arduous undertaking, it is the only way to accurately determine if charter schools can educate our students as well as traditional public schools but at a lower cost.
Until such a study is conducted that at least attempts to compare the funding for similar services provided, such claims that charter schools are more productive than traditional public schools cannot be substantiated.