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Charter schools offer high return on investment, study claims

Published: Saturday, Aug. 2 2014 8:40 a.m. MDT

A new study out of the University of Arkansas argues that charter schools produce a significantly high return on investment when compared to traditional public schools.

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Charter schools offer more bang for the buck than traditional schools, say a group of researchers at the University of Arkansas. Comparing per pupil cost and test scores in 22 states and the District of Columbia, the study found that charters offer about 40 percent better results in both math and reading scores per dollar spent.

While charters generally perform on par with regular public schools in student performance, they receive far less in per pupil spending, says Patrick Wolf, a professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and the lead researcher on the study. In the 2010-11 school year charter students nationwide received $3,814 less per student, a 28.4 percent gap.

To say that these findings are hotly contested is an understatement. Charter schools are taking on an ever larger chunk of students: roughly half of students in New Orleans, Detroit and Washington D.C. now attend them. Not surprisingly, defenders of traditional public schools responded quickly and vehemently to Wolf's findings.

Responding to the study, Rutgers professor David Baker issued a blistering blog post arguing that the data was fundamentally flawed, greatly understating the revenue that charter's receive. If the cash flows were properly parsed, he argued, charters would get much more funding than Wolf and his coauthors claim.

Baker accused Wolf and his colleagues of a “baffling degree of arrogance and complete disregard for legitimate research.” The study, Baker said, is either an “egregious display of complete ignorance and methodological ineptitude” or “a blatant and intentional misrepresentation of data.”

No love lost

No love is lost between the dueling sides on this debate.

Responding to Baker’s comments, Jay May, CEO of EduAnalytics, an educational consulting firm, argued that lower funding for charter schools is a “generally known fact,” and the data and details state by state are easily available to the public.

“We credited all revenues to the school sector where they ended up and were spent, not where they initially were sent,” Wolf said. “So Baker is wrong about that criticism as well.”

Wolf and his research team say they were scrupulous about accounting for any funding that was passed through from a district to a charter school, and they erred against charters whenever a doubt arose.

“That's a very conscious decision on our part,” said Meagan Batdorff, one of the researchers, “as we knew the immediate shouts and criticism we would encounter.”

“But this revenue data is painstakingly assembled and we consider and talk about everything under the sun for our accounting to present the most fair and accurate data possible given the data that is available,” Batdorff said.

Costs and benefits

Not everyone sees the data as controversial or counterintuitive.

It’s broadly understood that most charters are on par with traditional public schools in performance and most receive significantly lower funding, said Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Most people recognize that public school systems have been around for decades, and that there is lots of accumulated detritus,” Hess said. “That is a recipe for inefficiency in any sector. It seems plausible that schools that start fresh without decades of rules, and regulation and contract provisions can educate kids more effectively and more cost-effectively.”

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