Commentary: We Can’t Ignore How Much Charter Schools Cost — Because Our Students Are the Ones Paying the Price
Recently, In the Public Interest released a report that I authored, which examines the financial impact of charter schools on students attending public schools in California. While this analysis is unique, its findings align with similar studies conducted in Nashville, Philadelphia, North Carolina, and rural Pennsylvania. The main takeaway from these studies is that privately managed charter schools impose costs on public school districts.
However, Robin Lake, the Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, presents a critique, published by , which sidesteps the findings of our report. Lake fails to acknowledge the substance of the report and does not identify any inaccuracies in the 38-page document, which consists of 88 footnotes and a 10-page methodology appendix.
The report, titled "Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts," assesses the fiscal impact of charter schools in three school districts in California. It represents the culmination of almost a year of meticulous research, conducted in close collaboration with staff members from each district. The results may not be surprising, but they are undoubtedly daunting: Charter schools cost students in the Oakland Unified School District over $57 million annually, in the San Diego Unified School District $66 million, and in the East Side Union High School District of San Jose $19 million.
Reasonable people may disagree on the exact magnitude of these costs, with some arguing that the actual figure may be slightly higher or lower. However, no one can genuinely argue that the cost is zero.
Let me be clear, as reiterated throughout the report: The cost of charter schools is not the sole cause of financial hardship for districts, but it is a significant contributor. Importantly, it is an aspect that has remained unmeasured and unaccounted for in policy discussions until now.
Here’s how it works: when a student transfers from a neighborhood school to a charter school, the host district loses a proportionate share of its total education funding. While some expenses may be reduced due to the decrease in student enrollment, these savings do not compensate for the lost revenue. Even when only a small number of students leave a particular school, the school still needs to cover essential costs such as electricity, salaries for staff including principals and office personnel, special education services, building maintenance, and other essential needs.
In situations where thousands of students attend charter schools, as is the case in large urban districts, school districts cannot simply close schools to match the revenue losses. They must maintain a network of schools that allows most children to access nearby institutions without crossing unsafe areas, among other complex considerations. Additionally, districts must have sufficient capacity to anticipate future enrollment trends (including those resulting from charter school closures) and serve students with the greatest needs, including those with special education requirements, students from families experiencing deep poverty, and English language learners.
The concept of per-pupil funding can be misleading because the funds allocated for each student cover more than just the direct cost of their education. When a student departs from a school, the revenue loss exceeds the reduced expenses. This difference, known as the net fiscal impact, necessitates cuts to services provided by neighborhood schools, such as libraries, special education programs, art and music classes, field trips, and reading tutors. In the East Side district, for instance, the uncontrolled expansion of charter schools results in a potential reduction of $831 per student annually in available services.
These facts elicit various responses. State lawmakers may determine that it is crucial for charter schools to continue growing at their historical rate, but this growth should not come at the expense of reducing services for students attending neighborhood public schools. Therefore, the legislature may decide to provide additional funding to ensure that schools and districts are not negatively affected. However, suggesting that these costs should be disregarded or that elected officials should be prohibited from considering them is a disingenuous approach that fails to prioritize students’ best interests.
Ultimately, Lake’s critique seems to stem from one thing: she desires Californians to persist in the belief that the expansion of charter schools comes at no cost. Additionally, she advocates for elected officials to be legally prevented from considering the actual expenses when making decisions about charter school expansion. Unfortunately, this stance is deceptive and does a great disservice to the students who are unjustly subjected to funding cuts.
Gordon Lafer is a professor of political science at the University of Oregon.