City Charter Schools Aren’t Just Better – They Cost Less
March 1, 2010
Once again, facts are getting in the way of those who would question the success of charter schools. Critics often claim that charter schools are more effective than district-run public schools only because they are better funded. In fact, according to a new report, New York City’s chart er schools are thriving despite receiving fewer public dollars than other public schools get.
The New York City Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan agency, compared public funding of traditional public schools and charters. The analysis accounted for not only direct school funds but also for in-kind resources provided to charters by the city Education Department – for example, about two-thirds of Gotham’s charter schools are located in public facilities and pay little to no rent.
According to the budget office, charter schools receive fewer public dollars, directly or indirectly, than do public schools. The funding difference is negligible for charters that receive public space, about $305 a pupil. Charters that pay for their own facilities, however, receive about $3,017 less per student than traditional public schools.
That charter schools receive fewer public dollars only makes their success more notable. The findings in a recent study by Stanford University economist Caroline Hoxby remain unchallenged: Children attending New York City charter schools make dramatic academic improvements. Now, the Independent Budget Office report shows that these educational gains come at a lower public price tag.
Predictably, teachers union President Michael Mulgrew has already started griping. Though he rightly points out that charter schools typically use private grants to supplement the public funds they receive (the budget office report looked only at public funding), the influence of philanthropic giving on charter school budgets is exaggerated. A recent analysis of publicly reported documents by Kim Gittleson found that the average charter school in the city received about $1,656 per pupil in philanthropic funds in 2009. That amount doesn’t make up the funding disparity for charters that pay for their own facilities – and it’s not nearly enough money to account for the dramatic achiev ement differences found by Hoxby. (Full disclosure: Gittleson is a research assistant for Ken Hirsh, a donor to the Manhattan Institute.)
Someday, critics must be forced to admit that New York’s charter schools outperform the traditional public schools not because they bring in more money and not because they "cream" the best students – that myth has also been disproved – but because they do more with the resources they have. Freedom from the often preposterous restrictions imposed by state law and collective bargaining agreements allows charters to focus on student learning.
Charter school principals can fire teachers, while the legally mandated tenure system ensures that just about everyone who teaches in a public school is guaranteed a job for life. Charter schools can push teachers to work longer hours and attend frequent staff meetings. By contrast, the United Federation of Teachers contract with the city details everything that a public school teacher can’t be required to do. Charter schools are free to utilize data to keep track of student progress and teacher performance. In public schools, such technological advances remain comparatively taboo.
These freedoms, and not any imagined monetary advantage, allow charters to succeed where Gotham’s public schools have continually failed. The charter school critics are running out of arguments.