Choice and consequences

The cost of charter growth: New research estimates the price tag for districts

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Charter school teachers, principals and staff members gather at a rally organized by Families for Excellent Schools.

As charter schools have expanded, critics across the country have offered a similar complaint: they drain money from public school districts.

A new study puts a price tag on this.

In one North Carolina district, officials had $500 to $700 less to spend on each of its remaining students because 15 percent of local students attended charter schools in the 2013-14 school year, according to the research. That burden falls on the district because some costs, like building maintenance, don’t immediately drop even when there are fewer students to teach.  

It’s a substantial hit — between 6 and 8 percent of state and local school spending in the district, Durham County. And it underscores the challenge facing districts where students are choosing other options for school, but the school district itself struggles to cut spending enough to make up for the lost funding.

Charter schools “may expand choice for some students while imposing costs on taxpayers and students that remain in district schools,” write researchers Helen Ladd and John Singleton.

When charter schools attract students, districts struggle to cut

Not all school district spending is created equal. Some things, like the size of the teaching force, or the number of textbooks, can be cut fairly easily when a district loses students. Others are more fixed — building costs and most central office administration, for example.

The research, which has not yet been formally peer-reviewed, used detailed financial data from several districts to sort their spending this way and then estimate what districts’ spending would look like without local charter schools.

For Durham County, where about 15 percent of students attended charters in the 2013–14 school year, the extra burden on the district came out to between $500 and $700 per student. In several less urban North Carolina districts with fewer charters, the impact was more modest but still negative, usually less than $300 per student.

Other research has come to similar conclusions for two urban New York districts, Buffalo and Albany, where charters had even larger negative financial impacts on the local school districts. (There has been no national research on the issue, and the financial effect of charters varies based on how individual districts and charter schools are funded.)

This kind of research is tricky, because it requires complicated judgments about which district costs are fixed and which are variable — and most aren’t clearly one or the other. For instance, although the new North Carolina study categorizes buildings and school administration as “fixed,” districts could reduce both by closing schools.

“In the long run, costs may not be fixed at all,” said Ladd, a Duke professor.

At the same time, even so-called variable costs, like teacher salaries, aren’t always easy to reduce immediately.

“If Durham, for example, loses 15 percent of its students, that doesn’t mean all those students are going to come from a particular school where you can cut back classrooms,” Ladd said.

One part of school choice discussion

The findings go straight to heart of the national debate about charter schools. Supporters say they give students added options and can spur improvement in district schools; critics respond that choice comes at the cost of other students, who may see their schools lose money and even close as a result.

The latest study complicates the idea that each student’s share of resources should be individually divvied out — often referred to by school choice supporters as the “the money following the child.”

How does all of this affect student learning? If district schools everywhere were losing hundreds of extra dollars, like Durham, you might expect their test scores to decline. Past research says district schools nearby charters usually don’t see their scores drop,  including in North Carolina, but that could be because most of those studies don’t look at school districts as a whole, and thus might not capture the effect of lost resources.

District schools in New York City saw scores rise a bit from being located close to a charter school, according to a recent analysis. Those schools actually had their spending increase and student–teacher ratios fall as they lost students.

For now, Ladd and Singleton’s research sheds light on one important component in the debate about charters, not the full package of pros and cons.

“For evaluating the social value of charter schools, a more complete analysis of benefits and costs would be required,” Ladd and Singleton write. “That analysis would have to include any benefits from charter school expansion through greater choice for parents and children, as well as any additional costs in the form of, for example, greater racial or economic isolation.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana lawmakers OK up to $100 million to address funding shortage for schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indiana lawmakers agreed to dip into reserves to make up a shortfall to get public schools the money they were promised — and they’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to approve the final plan in House Bill 1001. The bill now heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk.

Rep. Tim Brown, a co-author of the bill and chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it was necessary to take the uncommon step and have the state to use reserve funds to make up the gap, but in the next budget year making up that difference will be a priority. Brown said he, other lawmakers, and the Legislative Services Agency will work to make sure projections are more accurate going forward.

“Do procedures need to be changed?” Brown said. “We’re going to be asking those questions” during the next budget cycle.

Estimates on the size of the shortfall have ranged widely this year, beginning around $9 million and growing as new information and student counts came in. Projections from the Legislative Services Agency reported by the Indianapolis Star had the gap at $22 million this year and almost $60 million next year.

The final bill requires the state to transfer money from reserves if public school enrollment is higher than expected, as well as to make up any shortages for students with disabilities or students pursuing career and technical education. The state budget director would have to sign off first. Transfers from reserves are already allowed if more voucher students enroll in private schools than projected, or if state revenue is less than expected.

The budget shortfall, discovered late last year, resulted from miscalculations in how many students were expected to attend public schools over the next two years. Lawmakers proposed two bills to address the shortfall, and the House made it its highest legislative priority. The compromise bill would set aside up to $25 million for this year and up to $75 million next year. The money would be transferred from reserve funds to the state general fund and then distributed to districts.

The bill also takes into account two other programs that lawmakers think could be contributing to underestimated public school enrollment: virtual education programs and kids who repeat kindergarten.

District-based virtual education programs would be required to report to the state by October of each year on virtual program enrollment, total district enrollment, what grades the virtual students are in, where they live, and how much of their day is spent in a virtual learning program. These programs, unlike virtual charter schools, are not separate schools, so it can be hard for state officials and the public to know they even exist.

The report will help lawmakers understand how the programs are growing and how much they might cost, but it won’t include information about whether students in the programs are learning or graduating. Virtual charter schools in the state have typically posted poor academic results, and Holcomb has called for more information and action, though legislative efforts have failed.

Finally, the bill changes how kindergarteners are counted for state funding. The state changed the cut-off age for kindergarten to 5 years old by Aug. 1 — if students are younger than that, they can still enroll, but the district won’t receive state dollars for them. Some districts were allowing 4-year-olds to enroll in kindergarten early, Sen. Ryan Mishler said earlier this month. Then those same students would enroll in kindergarten again the next year.

Despite increases passed last year to boost the total education budget, many school leaders have said they struggle to pay salaries and maintain buildings, which is why funding shortfalls — even small ones — matter. This year’s unexpected shortfall was particularly problematic because districts had already made plans based on the state budget.

Find all of Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.

let the games begin

Assembly pushes for $1.5 billion boost to education spending

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

In a tight budget year, New York State’s Democratic-led Assembly wants to increase education spending by $1.5 billion, officials announced late Monday night.

The proposed increase  which would bring total education spending to $27.1 billion  is significantly more than the governor’s suggested $769 million increase. Still, the amount is a slightly smaller boost than the Assembly backed last year, which is likely a reflection of a difficult fiscal situation faced by the state this year.

State officials are fighting against a budget deficit, a federal tax plan that could harm New York, and the threat of further federal cuts. The potential lack of funding could be the only sticking point in an otherwise quiet budget year for education matters.

As part of its education agenda, the Assembly backed a number of programs it has in the past. The plan supports the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which is designed to help boys and young men of color reach their potential, and “community schools,” which act as service hubs that provide healthcare and afterschool programs.

The release of this plan kicks off the final stretch of the state’s budget process. The governor has already outlined his proposals and the Senate will likely follow soon, setting up the state’s annual last-minute haggling.

The budget is due by April 1, but could always be resolved later similar to last year.