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Charter schools: A drain or a boon?

New research suggests charter schools improve their host districts’ finances

Animo Westside Charter Middle School in Los Angeles Associated Press/Photo by Reed Saxon (file)

Charter schools: A drain or a boon?

Critics of charter schools claim they suck funding from traditional public schools because students bring tax dollars with them when they switch over. But a new study from the Fordham Institute questions that narrative.

Charters are publicly funded schools independent of their local school districts, with separate buildings and instructional methods. They often compete with their host districts for students. The report, released last week, analyzed data from school districts in 21 states over 17 years and found that, in almost every case, as independent charter schools grew, their host districts took in and spent more money per pupil.

The pro-charter Fordham Institute partnered with critic Mark Weber, an analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, for the study. The results surprised Weber. “It didn’t fit with what my narrative was,” he said on Fordham’s podcast. “I really thought what I was going to find was that there was a fiscal penalty to school districts when charters came in.”

Instead, the researchers found that, in 13 of the states, increased charter enrollment meant more local revenue per pupil for school districts. It brought in more state money for seven, and more federal money for 10. Only Indiana saw a statistically significant drop in revenue per public school pupil associated with charter school growth.

State policy helps explain those numbers. Many states ease the pain of declining public school enrollment by reducing funding slowly, giving districts extra time to cut costs. Some, like Massachusetts, have funding floors for districts. And the study noted at least some local tax revenue often stays at traditional schools when students leave for charters, giving districts more money for each student.

Districts in 14 states spent more per pupil on support services like building maintenance and administration. Weber and Fordham researchers disagree on how to interpret that finding. With fewer students but the same expenses, cost per pupil must rise, Weber argued. Fordham researcher David Griffith disagreed, suggesting districts spend more per student partly to use up extra revenue: “The fact that a district spends more money doesn’t necessarily mean that costs have risen.”

Fordham President Michael Petrilli said the study is unlikely to change teacher union opposition to charter schools.

“They’re not going to stop fighting charter schools because of this study or any study,” he said. “They don’t want to see charters expand in large part because charter schools are mostly not unionized. … This is a case where what those unions want is not in the interest of kids.”

Esther Eaton

Esther formerly reported on politics for WORLD from Washington. She is a World Journalism Institute and Liberty University graduate and enjoys bringing her parakeets on reporting trips.


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