By Derek Black
May 8, 2018
Yesterday, I posted on Helen Ladd's pathbreaking study of the cost of charter schools to local school districts in North Carolina. She found an "average fiscal cost of more than $3,500 for each student enrolled in charter schools."
Today brings more troubling factual findings out of California. In the Public Interest finds that "Oakland Unified loses $5,643 a year per charter school student while San Diego Unified loses $4,913 a year and East Side Unified loses $6,000 a year."
What was once just rebutted as rhetoric is now increasingly becoming an established fact--charter schools are reducing the amount of funding that is spent on each student who remains in traditional public school.
As I recently explained in Huffington Post, states are favoring school choice at a steep cost to public education. From funding and management practices to teacher and student policies, states are giving charter schools and private schools a better deal than public schools.
As people gawk at the dollar signs in this new report, I would, however, encourage them to not overlook more evidence of separate and unequal schools. I argue in my forthcoming research, Preferencing Choice: The Constitutional Limits, that the preferences that states have created for charters, in particular, are helping fuel segregation on any number of levels--race, socio-economic status, language status, and disability.
This new report by In the Public Interest adds yet another piece of evidence to prove my point.
As this chart shows, while charter schools enroll 28 percent of all Oakland-area students, they only enroll 19 percent of its special education students. And the special education students they enroll are not representative of the overall special education population.
Rather, they enroll those who tend to cost less to serve. Most notably, they only enroll 15 percent of the districts emotionally disturbed students, only 8 percent of its autistic students, and only 2 percent of those students with multiple disabilities.
The state then whops a huge advantage on top of all this. It gives charters 28 percent of all special education funding for Oakland-area students.
Let me say it again, as bluntly as I can, Oakland charters only serve 19 percent of the district's special education students and the ones they serve tend to be lower cost, but the charters still receive 28 percent of the districts special education funding.
Here is In the Public Interest's press release:
$142.6 Million Net Loss in School Districts in San Diego, Oakland, and San Jose, While Student Needs Go Unmet
WASHINGTON – In a first of its kind analysis of three California school districts, researchers found that public school students are bearing the cost of charter schools’ rapid expansion. The report calculates the net fiscal impact of charter schools on three representative California school districts: San Diego, Oakland, and San Jose’s East Side Union High School District.
The analysis, Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, conducted by In the Public Interest, a California-based think tank, with Dr. Gordon Lafer, examines the cumulative effect of charter schools on California school districts, which rank 42nd nationwide in per pupil spending. The number of California charter schools increased by more than 900 percent to more than 1,200 schools over the last two decades.
“Our analysis shows that the continued expansion of charter schools has steadily drained money away from school districts and concentrated high needs students in neighborhood public schools,” said Dr. Gordon Lafer, political scientist and professor at the University of Oregon.
“The high costs of charter schools have led to decreases in neighborhood public schools in counseling, libraries, music and art programs, lab sciences, field trips, reading tutors, special ed funding, and even the most basic supplies like toilet paper.”
The California Charter Schools Act does not allow school boards to consider how a charter school may impact a district’s educational programs or fiscal health when weighing new charter applications. However, when a student leaves a neighborhood public school for a charter school, all the funding for that student leaves with them, while all of the costs do not. This leads to cuts in core services like counseling, libraries, and special education and increased class sizes at neighborhood public schools.
San Diego Unified is the second-largest district in the state, with a combined enrollment of more than 128,000 students, and a total of 51 charter schools. Oakland Unified has 50,000 students and has the highest concentration of charter schools in the state. East Side Union High School District has a total enrollment of 27,000 and is comprised solely of high schools. Although the districts face unique challenges and student populations, they share similar financial challenges from charter school expansion.
“Unlimited charter school expansion is pushing some of California’s school districts toward a financial tipping point, from which they will be unable to return,” Dr. Lafer said.
The report recommends that each school district create an annual economic impact report to assess the cost of charter school expansion in its community. With consideration of economic impact, school districts could more effectively balance the value of a new charter school with the needs of neighborhood public school students.
Key findings from the report include:
- Oakland Unified loses $5,643 a year per charter school student while San Diego Unified loses $4,913 a year and East Side Unified loses $6,000 a year.
- Charter schools cost Oakland Unified $57.3 million per year, a sum several times larger than the forced drastic cuts to Oakland’s neighborhood school system this year.
- In East Side Union High School District, the net impact of charter schools amount to a loss of $19.3 million per year.
- Charter schools cost the San Diego Unified $65.9 million in 2016-17, $6 million more than the most recent round of budget cuts in early 2018.
- In Oakland, nearly 78 percent of students come from low-income families, are English language learners, or are foster youth, while 63 percent of students in San Diego Unified and 52.7 percent of students in East Side High School Unified share those backgrounds.
The report builds on previous studies that used different methodologies but came to similar conclusions. In the smaller cities of Buffalo, New York, and Durham, North Carolina, the net impact of charter schools was estimated as a loss of $25 million per year to the school district. In Nashville, Tennessee, the loss is approaching $50 million per year.
And in Los Angeles—the nation’s second-largest school district—the net loss is estimated at over $500 million per year.
In the Public Interest is a nonprofit resource center that studies public goods and services.