Charter Schools are not the answer to our education problems!
KALAMAZOO, MI — Michigan charter schools spend twice as much per pupil on administration and about 20 percent less on instruction than traditional public schools, according to a study just released by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University.
“Despite the fact that advocates of charter schools and privatization have long criticized public school bureaucracies as bloated and wasteful, it turns out that charter schools spend considerably more on administration than do traditional public schools,” concludes the 35-page paper, titled “Is Administration Leaner in Charter Schools? Resource Allocation in Charter and Traditional Public Schools.”
“Charters’ outsized administrative spending, moreover, is simultaneously matched by exceptionally low instructional spending. If one were searching for a contemporary reform to shift resources from classroom instruction to administration, it is hard to imagine one that could accomplish this as decisively as charter schools have done in Michigan.”
The paper was written by David Arsen, a Michigan State University education professor who co-authored the study with Yongmei Ni, an assistant professor of education at the University of Utah.
Henry Levin, head of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, said the study is important because it is the best, most sophisticated study to date on comparing expenditures between charters and traditional public schools, and one that controls for the differences between the two.
“It’s not perfect,” Levin said, “but it’s as close to oranges to oranges as you are going to get.”
It also is important, Levin said, because it looks at a “claim that has come up again and again — that traditional public schools are bloated with administration” and charters are a way to streamline American education.
This study suggests that “charter schools got caught up in their own hype,” Levin said.
Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, says that “lots of people were making lots of arguments” when the charter movement started two decades ago.
“People wanted a new approach to delivering education — that was the real core” of the argument, Quisenberry said.
What’s important now, he said, is whether there’s a correlation between academic achievement and how schools spend their money. “I would guess not,” he said, “but that’s the real question.”
“I doubt the percentages (of how much is spent on administration vs. instruction) means much,” Quisenberry said.
Arsen and Ni focused their study on Michigan because its charter-school funding is comparable to the funding of traditional public schools and because both types of schools must file annual detailed, audited spending reports with the state. The researchers also note that Michigan has a number of very small districts that are comparable in size to charters.
The study looked at data from 2007-08. Among the findings by Arsen and Ni:
- Michigan charter schools spent on average $1,141 less on instruction than traditional public schools. Charters spent about 47 percent of their operating budgets on instruction, compared to 60 percent for traditional public schools.
- On average, charter schools spent $774 more per pupil per year on administration. Charter schools on average spent 23 percent of their budgets on administration, compared to less than 10 percent for Michigan districts overall.
- The average per-pupil revenue of Michigan’s charter schools in 2007-08 was $8,671, 3 percent below the average revenue for all the state’s school districts, which was $8,964. The study said the revenue is almost equal when charter-school revenues are compared to districts that receive the minimum per-student foundational allowance, which is 85 percent of Michigan school districts.
- The largest discrepancy between charters and traditional public schools occurred in special education, where districts spent over $500 more per pupil annually than charters. Nine percent of charter schools had no special education expenditures.
- Charter school spending on administration was found to decline over time by an average of $30 per pupil per year, presumably because less administration is needed after the school is up and running.
- Charter schools operated by for-profit firms were found to spend about $312 more per pupil on administration than other charter schools. This additional spending comes at the cost of spending on instruction, since for-profit charter schools have the same overall budgets as other schools. About 80 percent of Michigan charter schools are operated by for-profit firms, the highest percentage in the country.
- Charter schools spend nearly $400 per pupil more than districts on operations and maintenance. This discrepancy is attributable to the fact that most of Michigan’s charter schools lease their buildings, since they do not have access to debt millages, and these rental payments are recorded under operations and maintenance. “This disadvantage that charters face in facilities finance is completely offset by the fact that charters spend about $400 less per year on student transportation services than traditional public schools,” the study says.
Quisenberry continues to maintain that charter and traditional public schools can’t be compared in terms of expenditures because their accounting methods are different and because charters have some expenses that traditional public schools don’t, such as the 3 percent fee paid to the charter school authorizer.
“It’s an apples-to-oranges” comparison, he said.
Arsen disagrees, saying his study was specifically designed to make the comparison as accurate and fair as possible.
“When you put in those controls, the differences (in spending) do abate somewhat, but there are still some very, very dramatic differences,” Arsen said.
He added: “I find that when comparison isn’t favorable to someone, that person tends to say, ‘You can’t compare.’ “
Arsen said that he thinks a case can be made that spending more on school leadership is a good use of school dollars.
“I don’t think it’s a case where spending on administration is all bad while spending on instruction is all good,” he said.
But, he added, that point has been promoted by charter school advocates. “It was the charter school folks who made it an issue,” Arsen said. The idea that traditional schools were spending too much on administration “wasn’t my argument. It was an argument made by them.”
Levin agreed, but said he is sympathetic to Quisenberry’s point that the more important issue is whether spending impacts academic outcomes.
“That is the real question,” Levin said. “But charters have been careful to avoid that question, because the movement has made some very strong claims.
“The biggest claim was the American public schools were failing and charter school schools would revolutionize education,” Levin said. “There’s no evidence that has happened.”
In fact, while there are some very, very good charters, he said the overall record on academic achievement of charters is best described as “mixed.”
As to why charters haven’t outperformed traditional public schools, Levin said, “that is the $64-million question.”