- A recent study cited by the N&O claims that charter school growth is “hurting” public schools
- But charter schools only grow when families choose to send their children there
- Rather than a district in distress, a review of spending and staffing data suggest a district unable to control spending
A recent study by Helen Ladd (Duke University) and John Singleton (University of Rochester) found that in selected North Carolina school districts, charter schools drained funds from conventional public schools. Specifically, the authors show in Durham county –where approximately 15 percent of the school age population attends charter schools – charter schools cost Durham Public Schools (DPS) between $500 and $700 per student.
The study has spawned a lot of rhetoric. Citing the same study, last week editors at the News and Observer opined that the “excessive expansion of charters hurts NC’s traditional public schools.” Even worse, editors suggested that the expansion of charters “represent the misguided dismantling of a public education system that helped change North Carolina for the better over the last 100 years.”
Demonizing some generic category of “charter schools” intentionally glosses over the fact that it is North Carolina families choosing to enroll their children in charter schools that has fueled the expansion of such schools. Perhaps Ladd, Singleton and the N&O could devote some curiosity as to why so many families are flocking away from the traditional public schools in search of better options.
If charter school growth is hurting the public schools, if the public schools are really being dismantled as the left asserts, there should be evidence of such in the broad outlines of budget and spending figures and staffing levels.
Ladd and Singleton say charter school growth has had a significant negative fiscal impact on Durham Public Schools. So, let’s look at some relevant trends over the past several years.
|DPS System Enrollment (ADM)||31,946||32,907||3%|
|Durham Charter School Enrollment
|DPS System Budget (millions)||$294.8||$350.1||18.7%|
|Per Student Spending||$9,230||$10,641||15.2%|
|Per Employee Benefits||$1,649||$2,268||37.5%|
Table I provides data for budgets, spending and staffing for DPS for the years 2010-11 to 2016-17. These years are chosen because the Legislature lifted the charter school cap in 2011 and the time period encompasses the period of charter school expansion in Durham.
Between 2010-11 and 2016-17, enrollment in DPS charter schools increased more than 111 percent, increasing from 3,037 (2010-11) to 6,409 (2016-17). Over the same time period, enrollment in DPS only increased 3 percent (961 students). Likewise, the DPS operating budget increased 18 percent and per student spending grew 15.2 percent over the same period.
It is important to remember DPS and charter schools located in Durham County are both public schools. They both receive state money but for budgeting purposes are treated as separate institutions, meaning the figures presented here for DPS and charters are mutually exclusive.
The gains noted in this table don’t reflect a district being dismantled or in financial stress. It’s also hard to think the same when you look at DPS staffing levels over the same period. As previously mentioned, between 2011-2017, DPS gained 961 students. During the same period however, DPS also hired 486 more staff, including 256 more teachers. That’s one new staff person for approximately every two students, and one new teacher for nearly every four students. Too many figures? Just remember that over the same period DPS enrollment increased 3 percent while DPS staffing increased 12 percent.
Employee salaries and benefits comprise the single largest component of most school district budgets. As such, DPS budget increases look like they could be explained by staff increases. The other issue not discussed however, is the growth of employee benefits. Over the period 2010-11 to 2016-17, per student spending for DPS employee benefits increased 37 percent ($1,649 to $2,268). Looked at another way, the percentage of the budget devoted to cost of employee benefits increased from 17.8 percent to 21.3 percent of the budget, the single largest increase of any category over that time.
Ladd and Singleton will likely say the growth masks the impacts at DPS. That may be partially true to an extent. Still, since Durham County had such a high percentage of charters and according to the authors charter schools have “significant negative fiscal impacts” on DPS, shouldn’t the impacts be visible in the budget and staffing numbers for DPS?
Of course, that raises another question: Do these figures reveal the impact of charter schools on DPS or do they merely reveal the inability of DPS to control spending? Staffing seems to have increased at a rate disproportional to the number of students. Spending has expanded faster than enrollment. As Marguerite Roza, Director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University has pointed out, the real problem with the impact of charters on public schools is that drops in enrollment don’t reduce spending in teaching staff or central administration to match revenues because oftentimes spending is tied to departments and programs – not enrollments. And all the while the healthcare and retirement costs continue to increase.
The real problem is not charter schools, but DPS’s inability to control spending. The quick expansion of charter schools has exposed public schools as less than nimble in responding to a changing environment and the need to control costs. Blaming charters only allows public schools to ignore the real problem.
However, there are other problems. Reporters were quick to pick up on the findings of the Ladd & Singleton study. They weren’t so quick however to point out its limitations – which the authors clearly mentioned. Ladd and Singleton pointed out that the study does not account for the fact that charters may actually force traditional public schools to be more prudent in spending, encourage schools to cut wasteful spending and push schools toward better uses of resources.
The analysis also does not account for the possibility of cost reductions that might arise because districts have less of a need to build facilities, a consideration that might be particularly relevant in fast growing districts.
Finally, and most importantly, the analysis only focuses on the fiscal burden of charter schools and the costs to students of those who remain in public schools. A more developed analysis would balance those costs with the social value and benefits of charter schools. One of these benefits is that the average per pupil cost in a charter school is 70 percent of the per pupil cost of the traditional public school, resulting in significant savings for taxpayers. It should also be noted that the average charter school also receives no assistance for facility costs or local revenue. These subjects are not easy to quantify. However, as currently constructed the analysis reflects only one side of an equation.
N&O editors and other public school advocates have done a good job of pitting traditional public schools against charter schools. They forget however that charters ARE public schools, merely a variation. Saying charters in Durham County cost the school district $500-$700 per student is based on an assumption that public schools lay claim to funds for students who don’t sit in their classrooms.
Charter schools are merely another iteration of the American promise to educate our children. One of the purposes of charter schools is to provide parents with additional educational options. Charters are approved and funded when they convince policymakers of their value and viability. That most progressives fail to see the benefits of this evolution and view charters as predators on a public-school system, makes you wonder if their commitment is to provide a quality education or to prop up a failing system.
[ii] Table contains selected data for Durham Public Schools and public charter schools located within Durham County.