Can We Compare Charters and Public Schools Financially?

A new study challenges the assertion that charter schools are a good choice for districts struggling to deliver better education results at a lower price. Spending by the Major Charter Management Organizations: Comparing Charter School and Local Public District Financial Resources in New York, Ohio, and Texas released by the National Education Policy Center shows that school districts don't have any mechanisms in place to truly compare the expenditure-per-student in charters versus traditional public schools. In other words, the data available doesn't allow administrators to make a fairly judge if charters truly are the fiscally responsible choice.

After reviewing the financial information currently available, the authors wrote, "it remains difficult to characterize fully the expenditures of charter schools and the financial relationships between CMOs and their schools."

"Data quality and financial reporting remain significant barriers to conducting accurate and precise comparative expenditure analyses across traditional public and charter school sites."

Furthermore, until financial reporting is made standard across all district schools, to meaningfully contend that one type of school or another delivers more bang for the buck will never be possible.

In the course of collecting and analyzing information for the report, Ken Libby and Katy Wiley of the University of Colorado and Bruce Baker of Rutgers University found that previous studies that sought to showcase the success of charter schools tended to focus on academic programs and strategies and either downplayed the financials that made that success possible or de-emphasize them significantly.

Although the researchers were frequently unable to obtain the financial data required to do a thorough side by side comparisons, in some cases where such data was available, such as for New York City's KIPP, Achievement First and Uncommon Schools, charter organizations tended to spend between $2000 and $4,300 more per student than traditional public schools.

Given that the average spending per pupil was around $12,000 to $14,000 citywide, a nearly $4,000 difference in spending amounts to an increase of some 30%. In Ohio, charters across the board spend less than district schools in the same city. And in Texas, some charter chains such as KIPP spend substantially more per pupil than district schools in the same city and serving similar populations, around 30 to 50% more in some cities.

Although the report relies on the data collected from IRS filings and expense reports submitted to the states, the authors still felt they did not have the full picture of charter expenditures and therefore remained unconvinced about the validity of their own findings.

As a result, they recommend that a policy be instituted that would require charter to fully report their per-student expenditures thus allow district administrators to make meaningful comparisons between the costs of public and charter elementary and secondary schools.

05 7, 2012
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