Reformers frequently point out that charters are underfunded. They also laud charters that post strong student-achievement scores despite their lean budgets. But is this the norm? Do charter schools ipso facto achieve great results with less funding than traditional schools? As spending data—for charters and districts alike—are generally opaque, there is no clear-cut answer. This study from the NEPC (Kevin Wellner’s pro-union shop) dug into financial data of large charter-management organizations (CMOs) in three states and found a mixed bag: A few successful charter networks spend more than district schools, thanks to aggressive fundraising. Notably, KIPP schools in New York City spend about $4,300 more per pupil than nearby district schools. But many other charters spend far less. Those in Ohio, for example, spend less across the board than district schools in the same city. These data will spur conversation, but be wary of the NEPC’s conclusions, including that the “no excuses” charter model may not be worth its cost or that these charters (and their funding streams) bring up “equity concerns” as they create schools that are overfunded compared to their district counterparts. (Never mind that a swath of charters in this study is funded far below district levels.) There’s also much missing from this forensic account. Notably, the lion’s share of charter schools do not belong to large networks like KIPP—and were left out of this report. Analyzing the revenues of these handpicked “favorites of philanthropy” does little to inform the conversation on spending levels of the entire sector. What would have been a useful report is marred by the authors’ own biases, as they reach for a few conclusions that are only loosely justified by the data.
Bruce D. Baker, Ken Libby, and Kathryn Wiley, Spending by the Major Charter Management Organizations: Comparing Charter School and Local Public District Financial Resources in New York, Ohio, and Texas (Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, May 2012).