What does research say about Charter – District School Spending Differences?

Many of us are frequently bombarded with claims that district schools have a huge revenue and spending advantage over charter schools, and those claims are almost always cited to the same series of junk comparisons produced by the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform. The authors of those reports would have everyone else believe that no other research has even been produced on the topic. Time and time again, the same authors have engaged in a circle of self-citation and reiteration of bogus findings from the same bogus and painfully amateur analyses – analyses that first and foremost fail to appropriately assign or attribute revenues allocated to the relevant children served, and second and equally problematic, fail to compare schools providing services of similar scope, to similar populations. I will provide a follow up post which explains the correct methods for making such comparisons. But first, what do real studies, performed by competent researchers find?

 Baker (yeah… that’s me, so some self-citation here), Libby, and Wiley (2015), in a peer-reviewed article, find that in Houston, the average charter school spent about $424 less than predicted and NYC charter schools were spending $2,000 more than predicted given their population characteristics.[i] That is, using models to compare otherwise similar schools, spending gaps vary by context, with modest spending gaps disadvantaging charter schools in Houston, but with charters holding a significant spending advantage in New York City.

More recently, Knight and Toenjes (2020), in a study of Texas charter schools, found “after accounting for differences in accounting structures and cost factors, charter schools receive significantly more state and local funding compared to traditional public schools with similar structural characteristics and student demographics.”[ii]

In a study completed on behalf of the Maryland Department of Education, authors from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found:[iii]

“in all districts except Frederick, the predicted expense is less than the actual charter expense, indicating that average spending would be less for these charter schools if they followed the spending patterns of traditional schools in their district.”

That is, when modeled by regression analysis, given a variety of student and school characteristics, charter schools were spending more than expected (meaning, more than otherwise similar TPS).

Authors from AIR arrived at similar findings using similar methods in a study completed as part of the Getting Down to Facts project in California:[iv]

“The conditional analyses, accounting for student needs and grade configuration, show that average traditional and charter spending within our sample were not substantially different in 2014-15 and 2015-16. In 2016-17, Aspire schools were expected to spend $1,000 or more than traditional schools in both LAUSD and OUSD when controlling for student needs and grade configuration (Exhibit B). When special education spending was excluded, Aspire and Green Dot schools in Los Angeles spent more than otherwise similar traditional schools in Los Angeles.”

So, yes, the squishy bottom line in all of this is that it depends on the context, and also may depend on the charter operator within that context, depending on the types of children they serve as well as their access to supplemental resources. It is certainly NOT the case that charter schools are systematically shorted large amounts of funding compared to their district school counterparts serving otherwise similar populations in regular elementary, middle and secondary schools. The studies above include estimates of funding differentials in at least some of the same locations for which the University of Arkansas studies proclaim vast disparities.

The authors of these studies have been informed more than once, with detailed explanation as to why their methods are wrong and their findings incorrect, and with reference to studies, like those above which actually apply relevant, appropriate and standard methods. Instead of making any attempts to provide more accurate methods, or simply cease reporting, these same authors have made more and more egregious errors (see their latest on special education funding) leading to similarly erroneous – politically convenient – conclusions.

It’s either complete incompetence, or intentional deceit – or perhaps a little of both (see next post on correct methods for evaluating charter/district school – or any between school spending variations).

[i] Baker, B.D., Libby, K., & Wiley, K. (2015). Charter school expansion and within-district equity: Confluence or conflict? Education Finance and Policy, 10(3), 423-465.

[ii] Knight, D.S., & Toenjes, L.A. (2020). Do charter schools receive their fair share of funding? School finance equity for charter and traditional public schools. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 28(51), 1-40. Retrieved August 5, 2020, from https://doi.org/10.14507/epaa.28.4438

[iii] Levin, J., Baker, B., Atchison, D., Brodziak, I., Boyle, A., Hall, A., & Becker, J. (2016). Study of funding provided to public schools and public charter schools in Maryland. American Institutes for Research.  Retrieved August 10, 2021, from http://marylandpublicschools.org/stateboard/Documents/01242017/TabG-CharterPublicSchoolFundingStudy.pdf

[iv] Atchison, D., Levin, J., & de los Reyes, I.B. (2018). Study of spending in public charter and traditional schools in California. Making research relevant (p. vii). American Institutes for Research. Retrieved August 10, 2021, from https://gettingdowntofacts.com/publications/study-spending-public-charter-and-traditional-schools-california

Published by schoolfinance101

Bruce Baker is an Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. From 1997 to 2008 he was a professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. He is lead author with Preston Green (Penn State University) and Craig Richards (Teachers College, Columbia University) of Financing Education Systems, a graduate level textbook on school finance policy published by Merrill/Prentice-Hall. Professor Baker has written a multitude of peer reviewed research articles on state school finance policy, teacher labor markets, school leadership labor markets and higher education finance and policy. His recent work has focused on measuring cost variations associated with schooling contexts and student population characteristics, including ways to better design state school finance policies and local district allocation formulas (including Weighted Student Funding) for better meeting the needs of students. Baker, along with Preston Green of Penn State University are co-authors of the chapter on Conceptions of Equity in the recently released Handbook of Research Education Finance and Policy, and co-authors of the chapter on the Politics of Education Finance in the Handbook of Education Politics and Policy and co-authors of the chapter on School Finance in the Handbook of Education Policy of the American Educational Research Association. Professor Baker has also consulted for state legislatures, boards of education and other organizations on education policy and school finance issues and has testified in state school finance litigation in Kansas, Missouri and Arizona. He is a member of the Think Tank Review Panel, a group of academic researchers who conduct technical reviews of publicly released think tank reports on education policy issues.

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