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.”


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

What's fair

Colorado’s state-authorized charter schools could get more money next year

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Charter schools authorized at the state level by the Charter School Institute are likely to get more money in the 2018-19 budget year. That’s one year before most other charter schools will see benefits from last year’s charter school funding equity bill.

That bill was a major compromise out of the 2017 session, and it requires school districts to share money from voter-approved tax increases with the charter schools they’ve authorized, starting in 2019-20. The bill also created the mill levy equalization fund to distribute state money to the Charter School Institute’s 41 schools. Because no local school board approved these schools, they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for revenue from these increases, known as mill levy overrides.

Charter School Institute administrators came calling for their money this year, though, with a request for $5.5 million from the general fund. They arrived at this number by identifying institute schools within the geographic boundaries of districts that already share some extra revenue with their local charters and assuming institute schools got a similar share.

Institute Executive Director Terry Croy Lewis called it a “first step” toward parity that would bring institute and district-authorized charter schools to the same level in advance of the new law going fully into effect in 2019. Lewis said it seemed like a fair approach because the parents at institute-authorized schools often live within the geographic boundary and pay taxes at the same rates as parents whose children go to traditional schools or district-authorized charters.

However, the charter equity bill says that extra money for institute schools has to be distributed on an equal per-pupil basis. The original approach, which created more equity among schools in the same geographic boundary, created more disparities among institute schools in different regions – and the law might not have allowed it.

“I don’t think you can define equity in this conversation because equity cuts a lot of different ways,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and member of the Joint Budget Committee.

Budget analyst Craig Harper suggested to the Joint Budget Committee that separate legislation might be necessary to allow the distribution proposed by the Charter School Institute, something no lawmakers wanted to see after the bruising fight over the charter school equity bill.

Instead, the Charter School Institute revised its proposal to distribute the money among its schools on a per-pupil basis, regardless of geography and whether the local district already shares money.

What sort of difference does this make?

In the first distribution scenario, Early College of Arvada, located in the Westminster district, would have gotten nothing – because Westminster doesn’t currently share money with its own charters. Under the new proposal, the school would get $131,233 based on its pupil count. Meanwhile, Colorado Early College – Fort Collins, which would have gotten $621,357 because the Poudre district already shares money, would instead get just $374,952

Lingering confusion over the distribution question led JBC members to postpone a decision several times before they voted 4-2 this week to include the $5.5 million request in the 2018-19 budget.

It still has to survive the extended battle over the budget that takes place in the full House and Senate each year.