Cost effective education spending includes charters

How is education like baseball? When money is no object, cost effectiveness is less important. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas links education and Moneyball in a post for EducationNext:

The cost of public education is largely ignored by both the media and education policymakers. Many people think it is awkward, complicated or destroys the intrinsic and infinite worth of public education to inject hard-nosed considerations of efficiency into America’s schools. Then came 2012, the first school year in history in which total U.S. government spending on public education went down. Suddenly, money has to matter in public education, because apparently there isn’t an endless supply of it.

(Emphasis mine.) To be sure, budgeting is all about choices. Education budgeting should be no different.

Wolf writes about a University of Arkansas study, “The Productivity of Public Charter Schools“:

The report is the first national study of the efficiency of charter schools relative to traditional public schools, and to tie funding to student achievement. Across all 28 states in our study we found that public charter school sectors were more cost effective and/or generated a higher return on investment (ROI) than traditional public schools. Public charter schools are like the Oakland A’s of public education.

. . . what is behind the Money-Ed success of public charter schools? Mathematically, the answer is simple. Charters nationally are producing student achievement gains that are very similar to the levels in traditional public schools but receive about 30 percent less money per pupil. Similar results at a lower cost explain the advantage for charters.

(Washington is not included in the study; our charter school system was only approved by voters in 2012.)

3 thoughts on “Cost effective education spending includes charters

  1. The efficiency with which school systems use money most certainly matters, and we should be smart about how we spend funds. In the 2012-13 school year Washington was about $1700 per student below the national average, or about 15%, but our outcomes are about what you’d expect given the demographics. This would argue the Washington is reasonably efficient already. Of course, it might argue that money doesn’t matter (but there are other studies that discount this argument…)

    This particular study sounds like a classic example of “advocacy research.” One of the things I’ve observed about charter schools (which I support) is that, being new, they often have very young teaching staffs. This is particularly true for the schools that depend on Teach For America as their staffing model. You can create one school with a very young staff, but just like an NFL team the players get more experienced and productive and demand higher salaries over time. Senior teachers can make twice as much as new ones, so a financial model that would for a single school wouldn’t make sense for a whole state.

    The fallacy here is to think that because you can have a smattering of charter schools with young staffs you could create a whole system like that. You can’t – you have to staff them with a mix of seniority levels. This tends to make the charter cost model more similar to traditional schools.

    Charters also often depend on the district for space, a cost that doesn’t appear in the model.

    I’ll dig more deeply into the study itself, but the NPR report on it wasn’t compelling me to go out and read it over the weekend.

  2. Yes, I agree that you can’t necessarily take the financial model of one school (or all charters) and scale up to the entire school system. (It will be interesting to see what happens with New Orleans’ all-charter system.) But charters are a good option to have.

    Setting aside the charters v. traditional schools question, the main thing is that since we’re dealing with scarce resources, it’s best to choose the programs/models that provide the best bang for the buck, as far as we can tell what those are.

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