What do NJ Charter Schools Really Spend?

Posted on November 9, 2009



Getting back to the original point of my blog, this post is simply about introducing to the public discourse some actual data on NJ charter school spending. Back when I wrote my textbook on school finance, I found that DC charter schools were having to rely on private contributions to the tune of 14% of their annual operating expenses. One can obtain such information from IRS non-profit tax filings (IRS 990). I did a quick run of New Jersey Charter School IRS 990 filings for 2008, reflecting revenues and expenditures for 2007. I simply combined their tax filing information with their total expenditure information – which does include expenses for facilities.

What is most striking but not surprising is the degree of disparity among charter schools, driven substantially by differences in private fund raising.  Also important to note is that many of these schools spend well over the assumed $11,000 to $12,000 per pupil constantly spun by the media these days. I’ve not yet aligned the performance data with these new financial data, as I need to return to my actual research agenda (this particular analysis is  a part of ongoing research).

Remember also that these schools presently serve few or no special education children, making $16,000 per pupil worth well over $18,000 (assuming 15% special ed students typically at double average cost).

You might say, hey, if the public only has to subsidize $11k to $12k and private contributors pick up the rest, it’s still a bargain for taxpayers, right? Perhaps – but the necessity to rely on $3k to $5k of private contributions for each charter child educated then seriously limits the potential expansion of charter schools.

NJ Charter IRS 990Note from my previous posts and work on private schools, I have also shown that private independent day schools spend well above the average public expenditure. New Jersey private independent schools spent in 2007, an average of $25k to $30k per pupil (day schools only) with some exceeding $30k, also based on IRS 990 data.

My previous research on staffing in charter schools (based on undergraduate college selectivity of teachers) has shown that charters in some states attempt to staff their schools in ways similar to elite private academies – the private independent schools.

There is at least anecdotal evidence that some New Jersey Charter schools wish also to emulate elite private schools. For example, Ethical Community Charter School is founded by individuals previously associated with the Ethical Culture Schools of New York City, including the Fieldston School, a school where I taught for 5 years. An absolutely amazing school, which, by the way, spends well over $30,000 per child per year (even tuition is higher than that). I would argue that it will be quite difficult to emulate the ECFS schools of NYC on a mere $11k to $12k and that substantial private fundraising will be required. But private fundraising shouldn’t be required.

Good schools cost money! Sometimes a lot of money. Good education is expensive, which is not to say that all expensive education is good. My point here is that we are not going to solve our “urban education” problems on the cheap ($11k to $12k per kid), or necessarily any cheaper than what we’re spending currently. Any attempt to do so is likely to cause more harm than good.

[for those hanging on to anecdotal information about private religious school tuition as their basis for assuming good schooling can be done dirt cheap – about $3,500 per kid- please read http://www.epicpolicy.org/files/PB-Baker-PvtFinance.pdf]