Debate: Do charter schools succeed because they have different methods, or because they spend more money?

High-performing charter schools get amazing results, even for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They claim they are able to get better results for the roughly the same amount of money per student than district schools. Do these schools succeed because they have different methods, or because they spend more money per student?

A new report, “Spending by the Major Charter Management Organizations: Comparing Charter School and Local Public District Financial Resources”, by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, claims that charter schools succeed because they substantially outspend comparable district schools.

Authors Bruce D. Baker, Ken Libby, and Kathryn Wiley collected data from New York, Ohio, and Texas — the states that collect per-school cost data. Here is what they found:

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 (and at the middle school level) based on state reported current expenditures, and 50 to 100% more based on IRS filings.

What is KIPP’s side of the story? KIPP argues that its costs per student are roughly comparable with district schools. In a statement released to respond to the study, KIPP argues that the study left out some of the district schools’ costs and included some extra costs for KIPP schools. Specifically:

  • The KIPP schools were still growing, and as the new schools add more students, the cost per student will fall.
  • The study included KIPP Through College (counseling and support for KIPP graduates through the college years) as a cost for KIPP, even though there is no comparable service at district schools.
  • The study did not charge district schools for debt service on their building costs, but did charge KIPP schools for rent on their buildings.

One of the NEPC study authors, Bruce Baker, posted a rebuttal on his blog. “No Excuses! Really? Another look at our NEPC Charter Spending Figures”, Bruce D. Baker, School Finance 101, May 11, 2012.

  • Dr. Baker argues that growing schools actually have lower costs because newly-hired teachers are paid less; he wonders if costs will go up as these teachers gain seniority. 
  • He asserts that KIPP Through College is a benefit provided to the students and that it should be included as a cost.
  • Regarding building costs, he refers to page 49 of the study, which essentially says that it’s not an all-or-nothing comparison: district schools do have some building costs (maintenance, etc.), and that some charter schools get breaks on building costs (such as borrowing space in unused district school buildings). 
The blog post includes a graph about San Antonio middle schools that was omitted from the NEPC study. Dr. Baker accuses KIPP of using intimidation to prevent researchers from writing about KIPP.

What is the impact of the charter school funding debate in San Antonio? Locally, KIPP: San Antonio CEO Mark Larson responded to the NEPC study. He says that KIPP: San Antonio’s costs are “approximately the equivalent of what public schools are spending.” “Report: Charters outspend public schools”, Maria Luisa Cesar, San Antonio Express-News, May 12, 2012. Larson echoes the points in the KIPP statement (above): the NEPC report does not make an “apples-to-apples” comparison because it looks at different sets of costs for district and charter schools.

In the Express-News article, Larson called the report “intellectually dishonest” and “politically motivated.” Another article notes that the NEPC “gets some funding from teachers’ groups, and often takes a critical look at the charter school industry.” “Is a Charter School a Cheaper School? Maybe Not.”, Patrick Michels, Texas Observer, May 10, 2012.

It would be convenient to attribute charter schools’ success to some other factor (such as “creaming” — selecting talented students — except students are chosen by lottery), or spending dramatically more money per student. Then again, maybe it’s time to consider the possibility that, once their start up costs are paid, high-performing charter schools will be able to get better results at roughly the same cost as district schools because they use different methods that actually work.

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