It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the charter school industry, and it doesn’t look like things are looking up any time soon. In the wake of a devastating segment by John Oliver on the charter school business, and calls from civil rights groups like the NAACP and Black Lives Matter, the public is finally starting to question the wisdom of funding two parallel school systems when public resources are in such short supply.
The most recent nail in the coffin of the charter school movement comes in the form of a recent report from the Pennsylvania School Board Association that compares spending priorities and patterns between the state’s charter schools and public schools. Unsurprisingly, the news isn’t good for charters. The study compared spending in 85% of Pennsylvania’s charters against all of the state’s public schools, and the results reveal massive differences in what each sector values.
Priorities & Values
According to the report, traditional school districts in Pennsylvania spend a lot more on student instruction than the average charter school does, and they dedicate more of their resources toward special education services and programs for gifted students. Perhaps more troubling, the report notes that charters don’t actually spend the money they receive from the state for these services on special education instruction and support: “In 2014-15, school districts paid over $466.8 million in special education tuition payments to charter schools…while charter schools reported special education expenditures of $193.1 million.”
So where are charters spending that money? The evidence suggests that extravagant salaries for chief executives and administrative "overhead" are higher priorities than classroom instruction or student services: “On average, the report stated, charter schools allocated a greater proportion of their budgets to administrative costs - about 13.3 percent - including support personnel, building services, and maintenance. Conventional school districts spent about 5.6 percent of their budgets on administrative costs.”
Compounding matters, traditional school districts are compelled to provide services that charter schools are not required to offer, including transportation, which often costs 5% or more of the school district budget.
In another piece of news that should concern everyone who cares about public education, charters in PA also allocated more of their budgets to administrative costs than traditional school districts, including salaries for administrators. The PSBA’s report found that “charter-school administrative expenditures are nearly double those of conventional public schools, and their highest-ranking officials are paid far more.” When broken down on a per-pupil basis, this means that while public schools spend less than $50 per pupil on superintendent compensation, charters are spending around $130 per student for their chief executives.
Charters also spend a far greater portion of their budgets on expenses related to facilities (i.e., facilities acquisition, construction and improvement services), and do not incur costs such as “tax assessment and collection, or for cyber charter schools, food services or library services”.
Leveling the Playing Field
Charter advocates have long proclaimed that unfettered school choice and the elimination of regulations on charters provide the “silver bullets” that will unlock creativity and innovation in
education, improve student learning, and reduce the “achievement gap” between urban and suburban students.
But as the data in the PSBA report shows, the playing field is far from level. Traditional school districts have costs and responsibilities that charters do not, while charter schools are receiving public tax dollars for special education and gifted instruction but are redirecting those dollars to pay their chief executives salaries that are nearly 3 times higher than those paid to leaders in traditional school districts.
It’s also becoming abundantly clear that the charter advocates’ mantra that “competition is the solution to failing schools” is based on not only a flawed premise (our schools are not failing; we are failing them through systematic defunding and neglect), but relies on a flawed strategy: Choice and competition can not be the solution for the problems in public education that have been created by…choice and competition.
While there are certainly examples of charter schools that are well-managed, and use their financial resources in a responsible manner, there are simply far too many instances in which financial misconduct and malfeasance are harming the educational opportunities available to children. The mere existence of the website CharterSchoolScandals.com is evidence enough that the charter school industry is in need of much more rigorous oversight and regulation than it is presently.
If we truly value the education of all of our children, we should call upon our elected officials to place a moratorium on the openings of new charter schools until there is ample evidence that the existing charter school industry—and that’s what it is, an industry, not a sector of the education enterprise—is under control and refocused on the right priorities and values: children and learning, not dollars and cents.