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Report: Don't expand charters without examining consequences

A paper by the Economic Policy Institute examines 11 school districts, including Philadelphia.
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Large urban school districts such as Philadelphia should account for how charter growth might harm traditional district schools when granting new charters, according to a report released Wednesday.

The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute paper examined 11 school districts — including Philadelphia — that experienced dramatic charter growth since 2000.

It recommends districts take a more holistic approach when approving charter schools. Instead of simply considering academic outcomes, the report said, districts should examine how new schools might alter a city's education landscape.

"If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide, given the resources available," wrote Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University professor who wrote the report. "That is, resources should be used most efficiently and equitably to achieve the best possible system of schools for all children."

The study, however, failed to substantiate a central critique of the charter movement, namely that charter growth handcuffs traditional school districts because it saps them of resources and forces them to use remaining money inefficiently.

For years, charter skeptics have contended that charters harm traditional public schools by draining them of students and resources, ultimately creating a system of winners and losers.

The theory goes like this: When a student leaves a traditional public school for a charter, the district no longer must pay the direct costs of educating that child. However, the district still must pay heating bills, maintenance costs, administrative salaries, and all sorts of other expenses associated with the school that the student left behind. Baker's report cites several studies that have documented these stranded costs.

"District budgets don't simply reduce by the loss of a student. There are layers of different types of costs within any institutional structure," said Baker. "So you're retaining some of those expenses even though you're losing a trickle of students over time "

However, Baker didn't find any evidence of this phenomenon in his latest study. In fact, he uncovered some data that suggest the opposite.

Baker's research found that traditional school districts manage to keep overhead, administrative costs, school size, and teacher-student ratios fairly constant — even as those districts lose thousands of students to new charters. In Philadelphia, for instance, about 5 percent of students attend a school that is "inefficiently small." That figure has remained constant for more than a decade.

The same goes for overhead costs. In 2000, Philadelphia spent about 22 percent of its revenue on administration, plant operations, and transportation. By 2012, those non-classroom expenses only accounted for 20.1 percent of all spending, despite a large migration of students to charter schools.

Essentially, when big districts such as Philadelphia lose students, they manage to consolidate services and overhead expenses in a way that allows them to run with similar efficiency.

"I found for the most part that the districts I was looking at on those particular issues adjusted reasonably," Baker said.

Baker examined federal data in order to make apples-to-apples comparisons across cities, and he said those particular data sets weren't targeted enough to capture stranded costs.

"I agree there's not a lot in that data to tease out the inefficiencies," he said.

Baker does, however, still believe that charter expansion creates redundancies, and he points to other studies that have relied on more precise, local data to make that argument.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks



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