School size and the Goldilocks phenomenon

Like Goldilocks's search for the perfectly sized chair in the classic children's fable, educators have long sought the perfectly sized school.

Some have pushed for tiny schools. Ohio's KnowledgeWorks Foundation, for example, recommended in its 2002 report Dollars and Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools the creation of public high schools with a mere 200 students and elementary schools with 100 students (see here). The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation famously invested millions to start new, small high schools and break large ones into miniature units.

Results, however, have not inspired awe, and so the critics of small size as an instructional aid remain unconvinced. Fordham board member Diane Ravitch has long noted the limitations of smaller schools, especially that such schools are not able to offer a bountiful buffet of courses. Her critiques are well worth considering, and one can consider away here, here, and here.
 
But schools with fewer students have their benefits. One of the selling points for charter schools is that, because they are generally smaller than traditional district schools, they provide both a safer and more nurturing environment for students. Nationally, the average charter school enrolls about 560 students while the traditional district school has about 900. Studies indicate that teachers and principals in charters report fewer safety problems and that many good charters have the feel of a "community" or "family." Achieving such environments is undeniably easier when schools (or units within a school) are not megalopolises.  

In Ohio, where we have hands-on experience with charters as a sponsor (a.k.a., authorizer), school-size data pose the question of whether charter schools can be too small. More than half of Ohio's 314 charters serve fewer than 150 children and 75 percent serve fewer than 300. The Buckeye State is also home to a handful of enormous charters (many of them "virtual" schools), meaning that nearly half of all state charter outlays go to the 40 largest schools, while 154 charters have operating budgets of less than $1 million a year.

From a financial perspective, size matters. The Ohio School Facilities Commission, for example, will fund no buildings for traditional school districts that enroll fewer than 350 pupils. And Moody's Investors Service, dealing with national data, concludes that effectively funding charter school facilities requires at least 300-500 students, a number it called "an important threshold, because below this figure, the loss of even a few students can negatively impact debt-service coverage."

Charter schools in most states receive no facilities funding. Twelve of the seventeen states we examined in our 2005 charter-school finance study offered no facilities funding to their charter schools, and only the District of Columbia sought parity with district schools. Charters must therefore cover their facility costs from their operating budgets, which on average are at least 20 percent smaller than district school budgets. Size matters here, too, because this funding challenge is only compounded when enrollments are low. Tiny schools with budgets of $1 million or less must use their money to pay for an acceptable building while also establishing an effective education program: paying for teachers, school leaders, professional development, curriculum, books, technology, food service, etc.

In short, small charter schools face huge budgetary challenges. They have little margin for error and seemingly minor losses of enrollment or increases in their operating costs (e.g., health insurance, heating oil) may mean swiping needed dollars from classroom instruction.

That appears to have an impact on the educational bottom line. Academic achievement results from Ohio show that smaller charter schools performed worse than larger ones in 2006-2007. Two-thirds of those serving 100 or fewer children were rated Academic Emergency or Academic Watch. By contrast, less than half the schools larger than 100 pupils fell into those lower rating categories.

Is it that these small charters are new and haven't yet had time to grow? Apparently not. When one examines only schools that have been open for at least five years, the same unhappy picture emerges: Fully 64 percent of charters with enrollments of 150 or less were rated Academic Emergency or Academic Watch. (This excludes "drop-out recovery" schools.) By contrast, 43 percent of Ohio's charter schools with enrollments of 151-300 students landed in those categories, as did 44 percent of those with more than 300 students. The largest schools are the least likely to put forth dismal numbers. Only 8 percent of schools with enrollments greater than 300 were rated Academic Emergency in 2006-2007.

Many factors contribute to the success or failure of a school. Size is just one and not necessarily the most important. Goldilocks found a chair that was just right, but there is no "just right" size for a school. We believe, though, based on our experience in Ohio, that for long-term sustainability and academic success, a charter school has better odds if it enrolls at least 300 students.

Yes, there are happy exceptions, superb little schools that make it because philanthropy augments the state dollars. Broadly speaking, though, small-school aficionados and charter proponents alike should heed the data and recognize that, unless a school is mighty special, being small brings more grief than gain.

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