At the Intersection of Money & Reform Part II: Charter Schools

Posted on October 30, 2015



The blogging has been quiet for a while. This is partly because I feel like most issues that arise have already been dealt with somewhere on this blog. Also because I’ve been involved in several, simultaneous, long-term projects. These projects intersect with many topics I’ve addressed previously on this blog. At times, this blog serves as a palette for testing/sharing ideas. So… in this, and a rapid fire sequence of follow up posts, I will share some excerpts of forthcoming, and early stage in progress work. 

[from work in progress]

Some point to expansion of successful charter schools as a validation that money doesn’t matter for improving school quality.[i] That is, charter schools achieve more, for less or the same funding, while serving the same students. The core assumption is that charter schooling improves efficiency because the flexibility afforded through chartering permits charter schools to engage in more creative teacher compensation strategies and technological substitution, such as trading small class sizes for efficient use of technology through blended and online learning. Further, efficiency improvement yielded by charter innovations creates competitive pressure on traditional public schools to improve.[ii] Regarding productivity improvements from technological substitution, a recent review of charter school literature by Epple, Romano and Zimmer (2015) characterized online and cyber charter schools in particular as a “failed innovation, delivering markedly poorer achievement outcomes than traditional public schools.” (p.55) [iii] That said, we do not know if these markedly poor achievement outcomes were achieved with markedly fewer resources, and thus, a break-even on efficiency.

The assertion of large efficiency gains through chartering is often built on poor and/or mis-estimation of the resources received and used by charter schools. Specifically, it is asserted that charter schools generally receive less funding than do traditional public schools and achieve the same or better outcomes, thus are more efficient.[iv] The first assertion, that charter schools receive less funding and spend less is certainly not uniformly true.[v] Baker, Libby and Wiley (2015) explain that charter school spending varies substantially by context and by operator within context. Some charter operators, in some contexts, spend substantially more than both other charter schools and traditional public schools in the same context, while others spend much less.

For example, a handful of studies identify significant positive achievement effects of middle schools from the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network, but this same research pays little attention and provides only weak, imprecise measures of resources available in these schools. [vi] Baker, Libby and Wiley (2012, 2015) indicate that in New York and Texas, where KIPP schools operate, they tend to spend substantially more than traditional district schools serving similar populations.[vii] Similarly, Dobbie and Fryer declare high standards and “no excuses” strategies of select charter school operators to be more important than spending differences in producing improved student outcomes.[viii] But spending measures in the study are poorly documented and incomplete. Baker, Libby and Wiley’s (2012, 2015) review of financial documents and public data applying model based comparisons of school site expenditures to schools serving similar student populations reveals that many of the school operators involved in Dobbie and Fryer’s study spent far in excess of surrounding, most similar district schools. [ix] Baker, Libby and Wiley (2012) also explain that much of the additional spending among high spending charter operators is allocated to maintaining smaller class sizes, providing longer school years and school days, and paying more to teachers, holding experience and education levels constant, for working those additional hours. That is, the investments by charter operators follow traditional wisdom, and are not especially innovative.

Perhaps the strongest empirical evidence of charter school efficiency advantages comes from the work of Gronberg, Taylor and Jansen (2012) on Texas charter schools.[x] The authors find that, generally, Texas “charter schools are able to produce educational outcomes at lower cost than traditional public schools—probably because they face fewer regulations—but are not systematically more efficient relative to their frontier than are traditional public schools.” [xi] (p. 302) In other words, while the overall cost of charter schools is lower for comparable output, the variations in relative efficiency among Texas charter schools are substantial. Efficiency is neither uniformly nor consistently achieved.

Related work by these authors reveals that the lower overall expenses are largely a function of lower salaries and inexperienced staff (Taylor et al., 2011). [xii] That is, the difference in total staffing cost, and resulting total instructional expense per pupil, was largely in the reduced experience levels of teachers, resulting in part from the fact that many of the schools existed for fewer than 10 years (many fewer than 5), in addition to high turnover among teachers in their first few years. That is, compensation was held lower not because of creative technological substitution, or alternative compensation, but relative inexperience and high turnover. Epple, Romano and Zimmer (2015) suggest that these patterns are similar across studies of charter school teachers. [xiii] Thus, estimated efficiency gains, where they do exist may rely on maintenance of high turnover and relatively inexperienced staff, a questionably scalable and sustainable option.

Put simply, research on the charter school sector in the aggregate tells us little about whether and to what extent money matters, or money can be made to matter more or less than it currently does -leveraged through traditional investments in public schooling. Some charter schools spend much more than both other charter schools and districts schools and appear to yield benefits to students from that spending. Others spend less and do poorly, and still others spend less but do less poorly than expected (and are thus, more efficient). But, the variations in the charter school sector, and variations across traditional public schools may provide insights down the line in how to more effectively and efficiently leverage resources. By and large, charter schools that spend more appear to spend more providing competitive compensation for their teachers, offering longer school days and school years, and maintaining smaller classes, while those that spend less do so by maintaining inexperienced staff and high turnover.

NOTES

[i] Wolf, P.J., Cheng, A., Batdorff, M., Maloney, L., May, J.F. & Speakman, S.T. (2014). The productivity of public

charter schools. Fayetteville, AR: Department of Education Reform University of Arkansas. Retrieved August

5, 2014, from

http://www.uaedreform.org/downloads/2014/07/the-productivity-of-public-charter-schools.pdf.

[ii]Some, however, find that charter school expansion may exert negative effects through student/peer sorting:

“Results show that charters induce modest but statistically significant drops in math and language test scores, particularly for elementary students. However, results for middle and high school students show improvements in discipline.”

Imberman, S. A. (2011). The effect of charter schools on achievement and behavior of public school students. Journal of Public Economics, 95(7), 850-863.

Epple, Romano and Zimmer (2015) discuss the much larger literature on this topic.

Epple, D., Romano, R., & Zimmer, R. (2015). Charter Schools: A Survey of Research on Their Characteristics and Effectiveness (No. w21256). National Bureau of Economic Research

[iii] Epple, D., Romano, R., & Zimmer, R. (2015). Charter Schools: A Survey of Research on Their Characteristics and Effectiveness (No. w21256). National Bureau of Economic Research

[iv] Wolf, P.J., Cheng, A., Batdorff, M., Maloney, L., May, J.F. & Speakman, S.T. (2014). The productivity of public

charter schools. Fayetteville, AR: Department of Education Reform University of Arkansas. Retrieved August

5, 2014, from

http://www.uaedreform.org/downloads/2014/07/the-productivity-of-public-charter-schools.pdf.

Glass, G. V (2014). Review of “The Productivity of Public Charter Schools.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-productivity-public-charter.

[v] Baker, B.D. (2014). Review of “Charter Funding: Inequity Expands.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-charter-funding-inequity.

[vi] Tuttle, C. C., Gill, B., Gleason, P., Knechtel, V., Nichols-Barrer, I., & Resch, A. (2013). KIPP Middle Schools: Impacts on Achievement and Other Outcomes. Final Report. Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

[vii] Baker, B. D., Libby, K., & Wiley, K. (2012). Spending by the Major Charter Management Organizations: Comparing Charter School and Local Public District Financial Resources in New York, Ohio, and Texas. National Education Policy Center.

Baker, B. D., Libby, K., & Wiley, K. (2015). Charter School Expansion and Within-District Equity: Confluence or Conflict?. Education Finance and Policy.

Others report similar resource differentials (and more) for KIPP schools:

Gronberg, T. J., Jansen, D. W., & Taylor, L. L. (2012). The relative efficiency of charter schools: A cost frontier approach. Economics of Education Review, 31(2), 302-317.

[viii] Dobbie, W., & Fryer Jr, R. G. (2011). Getting beneath the veil of effective schools: Evidence from New York City (No. w17632). National Bureau of Economic Research.

The authors note: “We find that traditionally collected input measures — class size, per pupil expenditure, the fraction of teachers with no certification, and the fraction of teachers with an advanced degree — are not correlated with school effectiveness.”

[ix] Baker, B. D., Libby, K., & Wiley, K. (2012). Spending by the Major Charter Management Organizations: Comparing Charter School and Local Public District Financial Resources in New York, Ohio, and Texas. National Education Policy Center.

Baker, B. D., Libby, K., & Wiley, K. (2015). Charter School Expansion and Within-District Equity: Confluence or Conflict?. Education Finance and Policy.

Others report similar resource differentials (and more) for KIPP schools:

Gronberg, T. J., Jansen, D. W., & Taylor, L. L. (2012). The relative efficiency of charter schools: A cost frontier approach. Economics of Education Review, 31(2), 302-317.

[x] Gronberg, T. J., Jansen, D. W., & Taylor, L. L. (2012). The relative efficiency of charter schools: A cost frontier approach. Economics of Education Review, 31(2), 302-317.

[xi] Gronberg, T. J., Jansen, D. W., & Taylor, L. L. (2012). The relative efficiency of charter schools: A cost frontier approach. Economics of Education Review, 31(2), 302-317.

[xii] Taylor, L.L. Alford, B.L., Rollins, K.G., Brown, D.B., Stillisano. J.R., Waxman, H.C. (2011) Evaluation of Texas Charter Schools 2009-2010 (Revised Draft). Texas Education Research Center. Texas A&M University, College Station.

[xiii] Epple, D., Romano, R., & Zimmer, R. (2015). Charter Schools: A Survey of Research on Their Characteristics and Effectiveness (No. w21256). National Bureau of Economic Research

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